Islamic Perspectives

Importance of inter-faith dialogue

By Mohsin Usmani

I find no words to express my heartiest thanks to the organizers in providing me this unique opportunity of speaking on a subject which is the backbone of our multi-cultural society struggling for forging unity in diversity.

Ours is a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual country. As a historical sequence, the freedom to worship and the freedom to preach have merged as integral part of our social and religious structure. No bars, no hurdles and no hindrances ever stood in the way of religious worship or spreading of the Divine Message. From ancient times, through the sliding Middle Ages to the present day, Indians have respected this eternal fact of our social and religious existence. When the people of India, on gaining their Independence, gave themselves a written constitution, this spirit stood foremost in their minds. The framers of the Constitution in honouring the wishes of the people, took special care to preserve their mighty tradition which, thank God Almighty, has stood the test of time for sixty years. However, some incidents in recent history combined with hasty zeal propelled by a shade of opinion makers has led to a recent phase where the fabric stands exposed to the fire of hatred and violence. The effort so directed to impose a single belief, a single language, a single culture in the name of cultural nationalism is never more than a vain effort to destroy our cherished achievements of unity amid diversity. The peace and goodwill permeating the soul of India through centuries of peaceful existence now stands exposed to forces of intolerance and historical disbelief. It is imperative that a garden laden with flowers of all hues and shades, should not be allowed to be burnt down so wantonly by those whose contribution has been insignificant.

In finding a solution to the state of affairs that has come to exist, a mechanism has to be evolved so as to preserve the peace and harmony which have found a permanent place in our homes and hearths. The first and foremost step, therefore, lies in following our respective Faiths in their true spirit whilst equally honouring and respecting the Religion of our neighbours and persons next door. This act will necessarily lead to the second and more important task. I repeat, the task of making a sincere effort by all of us as individuals to get to know more and more about the Faith of our neighbours. Unless we purposefully study the scriptures and holy books of other religions, we ourselves stand exposed to the dangers lurking ahead. Only then shall we learn to realize the purity and truth contained in other Faiths and Religions.

The third step of realization shall, indeed, follow as a bonus. Love, respect and tolerance in our hearts shall beget the same values from the neighbours’ homes and hearts, failing which the slogans for destruction as we see and hear, shall never cease. In this, our own self-analysis is equally important as both consciously or unconsciously the urge to criticise bitterly on the zeal to contrast each others’ faiths is more likely to hurt feelings than to conquer hearts. Preaching of faith to attract men and women to one’s own doctrine of faith may stand justified but hurting the other man’s sentiments to force one’s belief can never be tolerated. To convey the truth and message of light with meaningful intention is one way, but to impose a belief, a culture or a language through force either by organized numbers or by individuals dogma aimed to hurt, is quite another matter. Here I may be permitted to cite an apt illustration, which will carry home my submission. For instance, as an example in Islamic belief, Allah is One of the only One, with no partner or supplement. In the result, Polytheism or worship of idols is strictly forbidden, a belief, which is basic to Islam. Yet, however, strict rules are prescribed for refraining from casting aspersions on the deities and idols of other Faiths. The Holy Book strictly forbids the hurling of offensive remarks on objects and idols worshipped by the others lest it should lead to sowing of seeds of hatred.

It is imperative that mutual understanding of each other’s Faiths should be preceded by a clear and uninterrupted dialogue amongst all denominations so as to keep the area or diversity to the minimum on the one hand and to expand the area of tolerance and understanding on the other. This aspect has evidently been kept in view by the organizers of this conference who have, so painstakingly, brought many of us together on this platform for achieving this objective.

As we see, this conference is lit up with the glow of all religions, each conveying its message of love and respect for all humanity - the Vedic teachings with humanism, self-sacrifice and moral uplift; Buddhism with its soul-permeating principle of Dharma; Jainism combining the spirit of self-purification with conquest over carnal desires; Christianity with its message of Faith, Hope and Charity as evident from the selfless works of the missionaries in the fields of human welfare, relief to the suppressed and the poor, and providing of enlightenment to the illiterate can be seen this day working for a common cause through an inter-faith dialogue for peace.

In this effort, the contribution of Islamic thought and belief can best be illustrated through the teachings of the Sufi Orders which found a welcome place in this great country, conveying the message of Peace and Love through the ages. The Sufis achieved results which go beyond description. I am happy to see the representatives from all Faiths gathered together for participating in a dialogue anticipated to discover each other. There is no doubt that all are agreed that true religion teaches man to love man and not to hate him. Notwithstanding this basic truth, the results have yet flowed, at times, in our country in the opposite direction, presenting us with challenge that all Faiths and Religions flourishing in this country should combine their efforts to save the country from being consumed by the flames of mutual hatred and intolerance.

The chief malady we are suffering from nowadays is lack of confidence. Our political leaders have created an atmosphere in which self-respect and mutual cooperation have been the greatest casualty. No body appears to have confidence in anybody else. Let me pronounce here that true religion always teaches love and affection to the society and not hatred and ill-will. I would like to narrate the story of well known Muslim Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. There is a big colony named after him in Delhi and it is situated not very far from here. The people used to call Sultanji out of love. It is said that a disciple presented him a pair of scissors. He said, “I have no use of scissors. It is not my way to cut and tear, I unite the hearts and bring people closer to each other. The scissors are meant to cut and separate. Give it to somebody else and give me a needle if you will. I want to bring amity amongst different people and not to create enmity between them.”

It is a matter of great concern that we are sowing the seeds of discord and enmity and separating people from each other. This is a situation developing in a country which produced a great number of persons who chanted the songs of love and played the melodious flute of affection. If you read the biographies of Muslim Sufi Orders, you will find to what extent these persons had love and regard for common man, in the same manner the people of Bhakti movement and the saints of Christianity who imbibed the true spirit of teachings of Jesus Christ worked hard for creating an atmosphere of love and mutual trust among people.

It is a matter of great concern for religious men that religion is blamed for all our ills. Religion has nothing to do with politics of terrorism. Fearand hatred are being spread by politicians. Here is the need for the unity of religions and starting of inter faith dialogue to remove the misunderstandings among people of different religions. It is not possible to work for disseminating the message of tolerance and peace unless the people of different religions come to know each other. The love and tolerance should be allowed to flourish and prosper through religions.    

In this direction, the dialogue between the religious communities is important for removing mutual misunderstandings. And this dialogue should be with as little heat and as much light as we are capable of offering. The points and problems should be discussed in an atmosphere of mutual goodwill. The dialogue has to be polite and to the point. A dialogue can be beneficial only when we believe that the other side is basically good but it is misinformed on some points. We can try to remove the apprehensions and understand the problem. For, to understand a problem is half way to solving it. There must be like this organization which undertakes to invite the different communities to express their views on the present situation of disorder and terrorism with the sole purpose of providing an insight into the minds of the religious communities. How they view each other, and what they expect from each other to give up or to adopt, to achieve better and improve understanding between them so as to lead to communal harmony and amity is the need of our time. Surely an organization like this should initiate the dialogue and without heated argument.

The need of the hour is that all the religious communities have to necessarily live in India and progress. They live in houses with a common wall in between; they sit side by side in buses and trains, in class-rooms and in conference halls and in offices and in shops. But if natural closeness is loaded with mutual suspicion and mistrust, it is bound to be very devastating. There is dire need that the dialogue should be initiated with frankness and without any reservation on terrorism and causes of terrorism. The discussion should be free and frank to achieve the goal of amity. The progress and peace of the country will not be possible without this amity and mutual understanding. The organization of true religious spirit should initiate this work and the social workers and opinion makers should join hands because this noble cause is of prime importance to the country.

Peace is a cherished hope of mankind and a crying need of all ages. Man’s need of peace whether for the individual or for the collective is becoming more obvious than before in our modern time. Therefore, it is the duty of peace-loving individuals and organizations to work together to make peace an existing reality on our planet.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 January 2010 on page no. 29

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