October 2023
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S.A. Ali: Problems and Possibilities of Interreligious Dialogue from a Muslim Perspective

We are living in a world that is becoming more and more interdependent and shrinking due to rapid means of communication and travel. Many Muslims previously believed that when people from different religions, cultures, and nations have greater opportunities of meeting, we would be able to realize the dream of one human family envisaged by Islam:

“O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other.”[1]

As this passage indicates, Islam holds that all human beings are essentially members of the same family and that their division into groups is simply to facilitate identification. It is strange, however, that the dream of one world and one human family seems to be eluding us. More people who were living in isolation are coming out of their confines, but instead of the broadening of their outlook one finds a certain rigidity developing. I think this rigidity is the result of historical, political, and economic realities.

People in Asian and African countries who have recently gained independence after a bitter struggle from their imperialist masters still remember the unpalatable domination, and they nurse fears and suspicions about their erstwhile rulers. On the political level, the growth of nationalist movements has brought with it a certain degree of aggressiveness which makes negotiation and dialogue difficult. On the economic level, there is a growing awareness of the North-South division. The countries of the third world feel that, as in the past, they continue to be exploited economically by wealthy nations who could do much to ameliorate the economic conditions of the people in the less-developed world.

I learned the foregoing from my experiences in organizing, as Head of the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi, several national and international interreligious conferences. If people from the Western world are more interested in interfaith dialogue than people from the Asian and African countries, it is because the former have no fear of religious, cultural, or political domination, whereas the latter, with bitter memories lingering, still have some fears.

These fears are often fed by the contemporary writings of Western scholars. Take, for example, the Arabs who should take an active interest in interreligious dialogue, because in Arab tradition such dialogues had taken place in the courts of the Caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad and in the court of Akbar the Great in Agra, India. But we find that the Arabs are not as enthusiastic about engaging in interfaith dialogue as people from Western countries because of the memory of the long period of the Crusades and recollection of domination by the Western powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Added to these is the continuous outpouring of anti-Islamic assertions in the Western world. For example, a 1975 course guide put out by the Columbia College undergraduates said about the Arabic course that every other word in the language had to do with violence, and that the Arab mind as “reflected” in the language was “unremittingly bombastic.”[2] Such writings reinforce the fears of the Arabs and the Muslims that, overtly or covertly, they continue to be the target of attacks as they were in medieval times.

The foregoing situation answers a question often asked: Why are Muslims, particularly Arabs, not enthusiastic in organizing interfaith dialogue in the same way as the Western world? It is not that they are completely hostile to the idea. Once convinced of the genuine respect for their religion, they are willing to enter such dialogues; and in fact Muslims have played host to non-Muslims by initiating interreligious discussions.

For opportunities of extending and intensifying interreligious dialogues to be realized we must have clear guidelines before us. Many principles which can serve as guidelines can be found in the Qur'an, as I shall show below. The most important thing in any serious interreligious dialogue is reciprocity. Muslims recognize Jesus Christ and other prophets, but most Christians as well as people belonging to some other religions do not accord the same recognition to the Prophet Muhammad.

However, a Western scholar, R.C. Zaehner, has written: “That Muhammad was a genuine Prophet and that the authentic voice of prophecy made itself heard through him, I for one find it impossible to disbelieve on any rational grounds, assuming of course that God exists and makes Himself known through Prophets.”[3] But Zaehner is an exception. Few modern writers in the West have accepted Muhammad as a true Prophet as plainly as Zaehner did.

A second important thing to remember in interfaith dialogue is to give reassurance to every participant that the dialogue will not aim at either conversion or superimposing a particular religion on the teachings of other religions. The purposes of dialogue should be to help humanity live peacefully and amicably, and to work together for human welfare.

Some of the basic principles of interreligious dialogue can be found in the Qur'an:

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         One should show respect to other religions and not use harsh words.[4]

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         An agreeable proposition should somehow be reached.[5]

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         Only the best elements of religion will be taken up for discussion.[6]

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         One should not be forced to accept a certain religious position.[7]

Successful interreligious dialogue will ensure better understanding of each other's position and bring about a certain degree of unanimity. Assuming the above principles from the Qur'an as a foundation, I propose the following four ways to help us achieve these objectives:

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         Taking for discussion common social problems and examining how they can be tackled within religious frameworks

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         Taking for discussion metaphysical issues of common interest. For example, is the world created or eternal? Is it due to chance or design? If by design, is there a meaning and a goal assigned to it by the Creator? Are human actions predestined or the result of free will?

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         Considering mystical issues which have a universal appeal

__MCE_ITEM____MCE_ITEM__·         Initiating social action programs instead of purely academic discussions. This aspect of religion has, sadly, been largely relegated to the rear by religious people.

If we proceed in these ways, perhaps we can succeed in a significant way towards a better future. But here I have a crucial question. Will the religious forces so channeled prove powerful enough to achieve the above humanitarian goals? The rapid modernization and secularization which had such great destructive impact on religious values in the Western world now threaten to do the same in the developing world, where religion is still a powerful force but is beginning to show a decline.

Secular education in the schools and colleges has driven away moral teaching, leaving children to find their own values. When religious and moral values are lost, new values may emerge which may not have humanitarianism as their basic objective. "Survival of the fittest" may become the dominant value, with the powerful trying to eliminate the weaker. I suspect that some individuals may already have accepted this new value and begun to act upon it.

"Survival of the fittest" is a law that operates in the jungles. In human society, every weak member is to be helped in all possible ways and not eliminated. To save human beings from the law of the jungle, it is important for religious people to try to establish religious and moral values. This is an issue to which religious people must address themselves in earnest. It is also an issue which holds great potential for bringing religious people together on one platform.

[1] Qur’an, 49:13.

[2] Edward Said, Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. 287.

[3] RC. Zaehner, At Sundry Times: An Essay in the Comparison of Religions. London: Faber and Faber 1958, p. 27.

[4] Qur’an, 6:109.

[5] lbid., 3:63.

[6] Ibid., 29:49.

[7] Ibid., 2:256.