On interfaith dialogue

02 Mar 2012


THE world is highly diverse. There is not a country which is without diversity. Though in the past too diversity existed but colonisation, scientific progress and communications have increased diversity in the world; globalisation has further added to its intensity.

Today people seek jobs and education in far-off countries across continents. Also, it is Allah’s will to create diversity among His creation. The Quran says: “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 one another other despite our diversity. Also, Allah wants us not to assert our superiority but to vie with one another in good deeds only. But the fact is that if there is diversity there are likely to be misunderstandings and misconceptions about one another. This can and often does lead to conflict and breach of peace. Such conflicts apply to both the faiths themselves and the interfaith communities.

Interfaith conflict is also widespread amongst Muslims like between Shia and Sunni or Bohra or non-Bohra Muslims or between Sunni Barelvis and Deobandis. The only way to remove these misconceptions is to have a dialogue with one another.

Thus the three ‘Ds’ become quite important: democracy, diversity and dialogue. Democracy and diversity are complementary; although many people think homogeneity is a strength, it is really not in the modern age. Homogeneity can result in a dictatorship whereas diversity becomes a lifeline for democracy. Experience shows that greater diversity results in a stronger democracy.

But diversity also poses a challenge and this challenge has to be met through proper understanding by one community of believers and the other through dialogue. The latter, it should be noted, is not a modern or contemporary concept, and that includes interfaith dialogue. In India, in the mediaeval ages Sufis and yogis often used to have a dialogue.

Also, Sufis, Christian mystics and Jewish saints, had dialogues. Some of them spent years understanding other’s religious traditions. Dara Shikoh, for example, had a thorough knowledge of the Hindu traditions. He translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian. (I have seen its manuscript in Darul Musannifin at Azamgarh, India). He also wrote a book titled Majma’ul Bahrayn (‘Meeting of Two Oceans’). It is a great book of dialogue between Hinduism and Islam.

However, there are some rules to be observed if dialogue has to succeed and produce results. The very first requirement is that none participating in the dialogue should have an attitude of superiority. 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, etc. Today, there is a great misunderstanding on such issues. Most non-Muslims, especially westerners, think that Islam gives no rights to women and subjugates them, owing to certain practices among Muslims from the hijab to polygamy to honour killings, and so on.

Similarly, there is widespread misunderstanding about the concept of jihad because of certain fatwas or statements issued by Osama bin Laden and his deputies, justifying the 9/11 attacks as jihad. And there is a great misconception among Muslims and Muslim ulema on issues like polygamy and jihad. Thus the need for dialogue amongst them too. There is much more that needs dialogue with non-Muslims.

A meaningful dialogue should include religious functionaries, scholars who have in-depth knowledge of the issues, journalists (who spread misconceptions) and lay people who are often victims of misconceptions. Secondly, one should have the requisite humility to learn rather than to only argue on the basis of conviction and not knowledge. Participants must also have the right to raise questions to remove their doubts.

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

Fourthly, one should have tremendous patience and the capacity to listen to and understand the other side’s opinion without trying to silence the opponent through debating skills or use of polemics. Such tactics can destroy the very idea of having a dialogue. There is a fundamental difference between a debate and a dialogue.

While being firmly rooted in one’s own faith’s traditions, one also has to accept the other’s without being critical. A dialogue is to promote understanding and not to reject the other’s faith or find fault with it. A dialogue should never be directed at converting the other side but at understanding it. Both or multiple partners in a dialogue should throw light on the issues concerned in the light of one’s own faith’s traditions and handle the questions with the tact and delicacy they deserve.

A dialogue so conducted can work wonders in promoting understanding about one’s own faith while understanding others’ views. I have been a part of a 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 for the other’s point of view are very useful tools for a dialogue to be valid.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai