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Da‘wah or dialogue?
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Most societies now tend to be highly diverse in many ways – religiously, culturally, racially and linguistically. Even tribal societies tend to be quite diverse with different tribes living together in one geographical area. Today with faster means of migration and communication diversity tends to be almost bewildering. While it is enriching to live with diversity it is quite challenging as well.

In medieval ages religious missions played an important role. The religious authorities worked with missionary spirit (the spirit of Da’wah ) and spread religions to other nations and other peoples. It was considered as a religious duty to spread one’s religion. While Christians called it mission Muslims referred to it as da’wah. Da’wah literally means invitation, invitation to join the faith. Both Christianity and Islam spread throughout the world through missionary or da’wah activities. Today one finds in these two world religions peoples of different nationalities, races, languages and tribes. Thus in both these religions there is great deal of internal diversity.

Missionary and da‘wah activities still continue in certain parts of the world, especially Africa and Asia and the two religions compete with each other giving rise to tensions. Today a large number of Muslims of diverse origin have migrated to western countries and are living as religious and racial minorities with the Christian majorities. There is hardly any Western country of Europe or North America where Muslims are not found. Most of them are from Afro-Asian countries.

Both the missionary and da‘wah activities and Muslims living as religious minorities in Western countries cause religious tensions. In the interest of stability and peace one has to minimise tensions and create inter-religious harmony. These conditions can be created through mutual dialogue. Today dialogue rather than da‘wah or missionary activities is needed. One has to promote the spirit of dialogue.

As far as Islam is concerned there is no obligation on Muslims to spread one's religion at the cost of peace and mutual good will. Peace is more fundamental to Islam than aggressive da’wah. Da’wah is desirable only if it does not lead to loss of peace and harmony. Firstly, the Qur’an, accepts validity of religion preached by all Allah’s messengers and a Muslim is required not to discriminate between one and another prophets of Allah. Allah has sent thousands of prophets some of whom have been named in the Qur’an and many have not been even named. The list of the prophets in the Qur’an is illustrative and not exhaustive. The Qur’an not only accepts all Biblical prophets but also adds others like ones from nations of Thamud and ‘Aad and others. The Qur’an makes it obligatory on all Muslims to accept all these prophets and not to belie any one from amongst them. Anyone who discriminates, one from the other is true kafir (4-150-51).

Thus to recognise and respect other religions based on revelations from Allah whether mentioned or not mentioned in the Qur’an is part of Islamic faith. It is truly in keeping with the spirit of dialogue. The Islamic thinkers who have imbibed the spirit of dialogue have added prophets, not mentioned in the Qur’an to list of prophets sent by Allah. Some Sufi saints like Mazhar Jan-i-Janan have accepted some Hindu highly revered religious figures like Ram and Krishna as prophets.

The Qur’an does not encourage undesirable methods for da’wah, much less aggressive methods or defiling others religious beliefs. The Qur’anic requirement for da’wah is wisdom and goodly exhortation. (16:125). Anyone who uses aggressive methods or abusive language deviates from the Qur’anic guidance and exhortations. The Qur’an specifically prohibits offensive or abusive language. (6:109). Instead it encourages what it calls istibaq al-khyrat (excelling each other in good deeds). It also makes it clear that diversity or plurality of laws and faith is Allah’s own desire (5:48) Thus diversity is a divine destiny and should be respected.

The Qur’anic concept of da‘wah is more dialogical than an attempt to impose religion of Islam on others. It is a great myth that Islam advocates its spread through sword; nothing can be farther from truth and injurious to the spirit of Islam. Even if some conquerors have done it, it was their personal responsibility and not that of Islam. 

Islam, in its earliest period had to deal with two major religions, Judaism and Christianity. It not only showed respect for the two and tried to accommodate them but also tried to have dialogue with them on the basis of what was common between them. It is interesting to take note of the following verse (5:82): “Thou wilt certainly find the most violent of people in enmity against the believers to be the Jews and the idolaters; and thou wilt find the nearest in friendship to the believers to be those who say, We are Christians. That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are not proud.”

Here the verse is speaking of people, not faiths. The Qur’an refers to the Jews as people who are violent towards Muslims and Christians as friends. The conflict between Muslims and Jews was not on grounds of their faith. The Qur’an showed highest respect both for Abraham and Moses. The conflict between Muslims and Jews was of supremacy of power and domination. The Jews were dominating Madina before the Prophet of Islam migrated to Madina along with his followers. Though the Jews initially entered into a pact with the Holy Prophet called Mithaq-i-Madina (the covenant of Madina) they were not happy with it and inwardly resented it. They clearly saw that the Muslims were an emergent community who will take over reigns of Madina. They, therefore, betrayed the covenant at the first available opportunity and thus violent conflict developed between the followers of two faiths.

There was no such problem with the Christians. Christians had no presence in madina and there was no conflict of interest between them and Chrsitians in Madina. The Prophet, however, came in contact with the Christian priests and monks who had no ambition for power or domination and hence the Qur’an says “they are not proud”. Hence the Christians are “nearest in friendship.

Thus often it is not conflict of faith, which creates problems but conflict of power or domination. The Qur’an was very clear on this count. It does not falsify any faith, Jewish, Christian or any other. The Prophet even extended a hand of friendship towards the followers of the other faiths and looked upon them with respect. However, it is vested interests, which clashed. 

And even when it was necessary to argue with the people of the Book i.e. Christians and Jews the Qur’an did not want Muslims to be aggressive at all. Thus for mujadilah (mutual arguments) Qur’an lays down clear guide lines. It says , “And argue not with the people of the Book except by what is best, save such of them as act unjustly. But say: We believe in that which has been revealed to you, and our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit.” (29:46) (emphasis supplied)

Thus Qur’an requires Muslims to argue with the people of the Book in best possible manner. If this is not dialogical spirit what it is? Note that people of the Book include both Christians and Jews It is these two religions, which were present in the immediate environs of the Qur’an and hence these two religions are repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an. In fact these are more of principles and guide –lines, which can be applied to other religions as well, including Hinduism in India. 

Maulana Muhammad Ali, in his commentary on this verse, tries to explain its spirit. He says, it should be noted that this passage deals only with the mode of controversy to be adopted in inviting those who already had scriptures in their hands – which the Arabs had not – to the truth of Islam and the revelation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an makes its own meaning clear when it explains that it is the broad principles of religion that should demand paramount consideration. The fundamental principle of religion is that God exists and that He reveals Himself to man, and it is common to all revealed religions.” He also adds that a Muslim’s conception of Divine revelation is wider than that of follower of any other religion, recognising, as it does, that Divine revelation is granted in all ages to all nations. A Muslim, therefore, admits the truth of all prophets and revelations…(The Holy Qur’an, Lahore, 1973, pp-769)

Thus a Muslim should not shun dialogue with followers of other religions recognising the basic truth in them. It is not proper for him to denounce other religions as false. It is not disputation but dialogue with others that is in true spirit of Islam. The Qur’anic verse 3:63 represents true spirit of Islam in this respect: “O People of the Book, come to an equitable word between us and you that we shall serve none but Allah and that we associate no partners with Him, and that some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah. But if they turn away, then say: bear witness, we are Muslims” (3:63).

Thus in this verse also the stress is on what is common and not what is contentious. And this is important for carrying on dialogical process. I think when Islam came into being in Arabia in 7th Century this tradition of respecting other religions and stressing what is common in other religions did not exist anywhere. It is Qur’an which accepted truth of other religions and sought their co-operation.

The Muslims, wherever in the world, living in majority or minority, should seek to revive this Qur’anic spirit of dialogue. 

In medieval ages the whole emphasis was on da`wah or conversion in Islam and on missionary activities among the Christians. Now in our times the emphasis is on dialogue i.e. understanding each other and interaction with each other. Globalisation makes it all the more necessary. Globalisation leads to much increased shifting of population and migration. Thus diversity increases and people of different religions and cultures live together. If there is no dialogue among themselves or they emphasise da`wah in place of dialogue it would lead to tension, strife and conflict. And social tensions would disturb social stability.

It is, therefore, necessary to promote the spirit of dialogue among people of different faiths. It is, therefore, necessary to throw some light on the methodology of conducting inter-faith dialogue .

The first requirement of the spirit of dialogue is to know the ‘other’ in faith. No dialogue can ever be successful if this spirit does not prevail. There should not be any attempt to influence, much less convert the other. It is, therefore, very necessary that we cultivate the habit of listening, not of arguing. A successful dialogue can be conducted only if we listen to each other with rapt attention so that we can understand each other. Argumentation should not be there or should be kept at minimum. We can understand the other only if we patiently listen to the other. Listening is the sterling quality in the process of dialogue.

It is also important to develop trust in each other and the process of dialogue should lead to building up trust in each other. If trust is lacking no dialogue can ever succeed. Mutual trust is very basic to any inter-religious dialogue.

It is also necessary for building proper spirit of dialogue to talk to the other to explain and listen to learn and to counter as it often happens.

In the process of dialogue one should know the self in order to know the other. Without knowing the self fully it is not possible to know the other properly. It has been often observed that without knowing ourselves we try to know the other and this will only result in confusion rather than clarification. The first question should be who am I before we ask who the other is?

Also, as quoted from the Qur’anic verse above we should develop the spirit of sharing in common what can be shared in common. The emphasis should be on what is common rather than what is different. The conflict develops when we stress what is different rather than what is common. Not that it is not necessary to know what is different; it is. But first we should build trust in each other by emphasising what is common before we go to differences amongst us. Differences could come last.

It is also important to have dialogue with the inner other before we have dialogue with the external other. Each religious faith is divided in number of sects and schools of thought. Thus dialogue with inner other is as necessary as with the external other. The differences between, for example, Shi`ahs and Sunnis among Muslims and Catholics and Protestants lead to creation of inner other. Some times dialogue with the inner other becomes more necessary than the external other. Here too we should be guided by the principle of what we share in common and what could lead to building up the spirit of trust with the inner other.

We live in democracies today and sometime political differences may override or coincide with religious differences. In a democratic and secular polity often religious differences may become secondary and political unity may override religious differences. Thus the religious other may not necessarily be the political other and political other may not necessarily be the religious other. One may have much in common politically with the religious other. If we share political ideology with the religious other it is likely to reduce religious tensions. One should encourage such processes. Religious polarisation is likely to be more problematic for peace and stability than political polarisation. In a democratic set up followers of different religions may come together politically, resulting in greater religious harmony.

Also, linguistic and cultural otherness might erode ‘we’ feeling in a religious group. The linguistic and cultural differences can also become as explosive as religious differences. Thus a linguistic other may not be able to have strong ‘we’ feeling with ones own religious group. It is thus necessary to make dialogues linguistically and culturally inclusive too.

It is also necessary to understand that the identity of ‘we’ and ‘they’ also keeps on changing with the context. Identities also cannot be static or may be even multiple. Even religious identities change or evolve. One may have orthodox identity today and liberal one tomorrow or vice versa. Or conversion also leads to change of identity. Even when we emphasise the importance of dialogue conversion cannot be completely ruled out. Conversion is not always the result of da`wah, it can result from inner motivation and conversion through inner motivation and inner feeling is more genuine than through mission or through da`wah. Thus religious identity evolves or changes. 

Identity is a sense of belonging and a psychological boundary vis-ŕ-vis other. An identity can be defined only by drawing a line between the self and the other, between one group and the other. There cannot be sense of identity if the other does not exist. It is always with reference to other that I have my identity. And my own identity evolves with my own better understanding of faith from its very elementary understanding to highly specialised knowledge of my faith. 

It is also important to note that a liberal Hindu or Christian or Muslim may have more in common that an orthodox and a liberal co-religionists. Thus liberals of two different religions share much more in common than an orthodox and a liberal from the same religion.

One should also keep in mind that a dialogue is an encounter and not a confrontation. Encounter always leads to deeper understanding while confrontation leads to conflict and violence. Quality of dialogue depends on quality of knowledge the partners in dialogue have. Dialogue between ignorant persons will lead to strengthening of prejudices. As pointed out above in globalised world people of diverse religious, linguistic and cultural backgrounds are thrown together some times by choice and some times by compulsion. The peoples of these diverse backgrounds have to live together in a geographical area. This living together should become a commitment and dialogue further strengthens this commitment.

It is generally thought that a homogenous group can live in greater peace and stability. Thus all Muslims or all Hindus or all Christians can live together without problems or tensions. This is not borne out empirically. The so-called homogenous groups soon dissolve into several sub-groups with inner tensions and these tensions can even become explosive. So even a most homogenous group can develop ‘we’ and ‘they’ groups and dialogue may become necessary among them.

Thus in modern world commitment to live together with the other is very essential and to make this living together successful knowing the other is highly necessary. Also a dialogue should always create a culture of tolerance and a culture of respecting the other. We often demonise the other and draw a false sense of solace from it as it leads to feeling of self-righteousness in the ‘in’ group. Such demonisation of other can wreck the process of peace in the society. Some times we even try to overcome inner group tensions by demonising the other.

Islam teaches Muslims to live in peace with others, including religious, linguistic, racial or national other. The Qur’anic verses like 5:48 or 4:35 or 22:40 or 30:22 or 6:109 are very important in this respect. In fact the verse 5:48 throws challenge to us to live with plurality of faith and laws and the Qur’anic emphasis is on excelling the other in good deeds and not competing with the other in religious rituals or ways of worshipping. Thus Qur’an accepts diversity as given, as the Will of Allah rather than rejecting it. 

For a good Muslim living with diversity in a spirit of tolerance should be a commitment and he/she should fulfil this commitment for pleasure of Allah. A Muslim should also continuously enter into dialogue with wisdom with the other to promote the Will of Allah. Millions of Muslims today live as religious minority in countries of Asia, Africa, North America and elsewhere. Everywhere, whether in majority or minority they should become active agents of promoting better understanding among diverse faith, linguistic, racial or cultural groups.

If Muslims actively involve themselves in fulfilling this duty world will be much better place to live in. Living in peace and harmony is as important a duty as believing in unity of Allah (wahdaniyyah). Tawhid (belief in unity of God) is not only a theological concept but it is also a sociological concept. On sociological level the concept of tawhid results in unity of whole humankind as His creation. Qur’an often addresses humankind as nas (people) bani Adam (children of Adam) which emphasises this sense of human unity. Thus the Qur’anic concept of tawhid is all inclusive concept.

Thus unity and sense of inclusiveness can be promoted only by promoting the spirit of dialogue and spirit of tolerance. It is real spirit of tawhid.

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