Islamic Perspectives

On the need for inter-religious dialogue

Today world is highly diverse. There is not a single country in the world which is homogenous and without diversity. Though in the past too, diversity existed but colonization, scientific progress and faster means of transportation have increased diversity in the world and globalization has further added to its intensity. In the past people generally moved for better prospects within their respective countries, today people seek jobs, even education, in far off countries or even across continents.

Also, it is Allah’s will to create diversity among His creation. Allah says in the Qur’an, "And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds" (5:48). Thus, diversity is Allah’s will and it is a trial for us if we can live in peace and harmony with each other despite this diversity. Also, Allah wants us not to assert our superiority on the basis of our differences but to vie one with another in good deeds.

Also, if there is diversity there are likely to be misunderstandings and misconceptions about each other which often leads to conflict and breach of peace. This applies to both: interfaith and intrafaith communities. Intrafaith conflict is also widespread, like between Shi’ahs and Sunnis, or Bohra or non-Bohra Muslims, or between Barelvis and Deobandis. The only way to remove these misconceptions is to have a dialogue with each other.

Thus, three ideas become quite important: democracy, diversity and dialogue. Democracy and diversity is complimentary to each other though many people think homogeneity is strength; the fact is: it is not. Homogeneity can result in dictatorship whereas diversity becomes the lifeline for democracy. Experience shows that greater diversity results in a stronger democracy.

But diversity also poses a challenge which has to be met through proper understanding of each other through dialogue. Dialogue, it should be noted, is not a modern or contemporary concept including inter-religious dialogue. In medieval ages, Sufis and yogis often used to have dialogue in India. Also, Sufis on one hand, and Christian mystics and Jewish saints on the other, engaged in dialogue. Some of them spent years understanding others’ religious traditions. Dara Shikoh or Mazhar Jan-i-Janan, for example, had thorough knowledge of Hindu traditions. Dara Shikoh even translated the Upanishad from Sanskrit into Persian and named it "Sirr-e-Akbar" (The greatest Mystery). I have seen its manuscript in Darul Musannifin, Azamgarh. He also wrote a book called "Majma’ul Bahrayn" (Co-mingling of Two Oceans). It is a great book of dialogue between Hinduism and Islam.

However, there are some rules to be observed for dialogue to succeed and produce the required results. The very first requirement is that no one participating in the dialogue should have an attitude of superiority over the other. It goes against the very spirit of dialogue. Secondly, dialogue should be on certain concrete issues like women’s rights or war or non-violence and so on. Today, there is great misunderstanding about these issues. Most of the non-Muslims, especially westerners, think that Islam gives no rights to women and subjugates them thanks to certain practices among Muslims like hijab or polygamy or honour killing and so on.

Similarly, there is widespread misunderstanding about the concept of Jihad thanks to certain fatwas or statements of Osama bin Laden justifying his attack on New York Towers as "Jihad". In fact, there are great misconceptions among Muslims and Muslim Ulama about issues like polygamy and Jihad. There is a great need for dialogue with them too. And we need much more to have a dialogue with non-Muslims.

The dialogue process should include religious functionaries, scholars who have in-depth knowledge of the issues, journalists (who write and spread misconceptions) and lay people as well, as these people are often victims of misconceptions. Secondly, one should have humility to learn rather than argue on the basis of ignorance. But participants must have the right to raise questions to remove doubts.

Thirdly, one must be firmly rooted in ones own faith, tradition and should be able to explain the reasons for certain practices or rationale of the teaching. Any doubt or ignorance may harm the spirit of dialogue. Also one should be able to remove all the doubts raised during the discussion with one’s thorough knowledge, conviction and clarity.

Fourthly, one should have tremendous patience and capacity to listen and understand others’ situation and try to remove doubts expressed and not try to silence the other party through debating skills or try polemics. It will destroy the very purpose of having a dialogue. There is a fundamental difference between debate and dialogue.  

Also while being firmly rooted in one’s own faith and traditions, one also has to accept the other with his/her otherness without being critical of the otherness. Dialogue is to promote understanding and not to reject others’ faith or finding fault in others’ faith. Dialogue should never be directed at converting the other but only to understand the other. Two or the multiple partners in dialogue should throw light on the concerned issue in the light of one’s own faith and tradition and handle the questions with the tact and delicacy they deserve.

Dialogue so conducted can really work wonders and promote real understanding about one’s own faith while understanding others’ faiths as well. I have been a part of the dialogue process for more than 40 years and can say with confidence that dialogue plays a very important role in a diverse society. Knowledge, conviction, clarity and appreciation of others’ points of view are very useful tools for dialogue.    

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2012 on page no. 21

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