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Interfaith Dialogue ( 1 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslim Responses to Interreligious Dialogue


By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

1.       Nature of (Interreligious) Dialogue

Etymologically the word ‘dialogue’ comes from the Greek “dia”, to see through, and “logos” (speech, discourse). As the etymology of the word indicates “dialogue” refers to the process of gaining a deeper understanding of the other through the process of meaningful conversation.  The nature of dialogue is based on a number of principles that are unique to it and set it apart from other forms of discourse such as a debate, discussion or a refutation. When two people are engaged in a dialogue they embark on a search for common meaning though a process of a mutual inquiry and in the spirit of cooperation they suspend any preconceived assumptions of the other prior to entering it. Dialogue is by its very nature always a developing, creative and ongoing process with the views of the participants taking the form of notions that are tentative and open to modification. Through dialogue its participants become consciously ‘vulnerable’, seeking deeper understanding of the other (and thereby the self) with the aim of generating empathy and increased sensitivity for the humanity, the inherent dignity and difference of the other. It is a process of bringing the hearts (and not necessarily the minds) of those engaged in dialogue together. As Martin Buber puts it   “true dialogue expresses an essential aspect of the human spirit, when we listen and respond to one another with an authenticity that forges a bond between us”. Willingness to exercise introspection and self-criticism are also essential ingredients of those engaging in dialogue. For dialogue to be meaningful its participants must establish mutual trust and approach dialogue with integrity and honesty. This nature of dialogue also applies to interreligious dialogue. What is peculiar to interreligious dialogue is that, given the above, it does not seek doctrinal agreement or conversion but is a process of enriching one’s own faith by gaining a better understanding of the other and establishing respect for those who belong to a different religious tradition. Meaningful interreligious dialogue also brings about the multifaceted, complex and contested nature of each of the participants’ own religious tradition and does not neglect the cacophony of diverse and, at times marginalized voices that make up each religious tradition itself.

One of the challenges of interreligious dialogue is to acknowledge and effectively confront with the history of religiously inspired violence, conflict and suffering by internalizing the pain that religious other might feel. Equally importantly, interreligious dialogue also highlights and celebrates positive example of interreligious harmony inherited from the past. Importantly, interreligious dialogue is an action and community oriented discourse that is not confined to the religious or scholarly elites but aims to include entire religious communities. This especially holds true in today’s globally interconnected world and multicultural world in which adherents of different religious traditions cross paths frequently in a number of different settings.

2.       Muslim Responses to Interreligious Dialogue

To understand how Muslims have approached (and still approach) interreligious dialogue, in addition examining scriptural sources, more needs to be  said about the context in which Islam first appeared .  The context of the emergence of Prophet Muhammad’s Message in 7th century Arabia as evident in the Qur’an, was such that it took place alongside other already well-established religious communities, most important of which were, apart from Arabian pre-Qur’anic beliefs, Judaism, Hanifiyyah (Arabian monotheism based on the faith of Abraham) and Christianity.

It is important to note in this context that the very fabric and nature of the Qur’an clearly depicts many of the events and the nature of the relationship between the Muslim community and the non-Muslim Other during the revelatory period. Here it is essential to point out that the Qur’anic attitude (and therefore Muhammad’s praxis) towards the religious Other is highly contextual in nature and therefore context-dependent if not ambivalent. The aspects of religious identity continuity and commonality with other faiths, especially Judaism and Christianity (adherents of which the Qur’an refers to as Ahl-Kitab , i.e. People of Scripture)  are intertwined with those of the emergence and emphasis on the Muslim identity originality and distinctiveness.  In addition to this, in the Qur’an there are verses (e.g. 22:17;5:69;2:62) which place some of the Ahl-Kitab adherents in very favourable light while  in some  verses other  members of the ahl-kitab are strongly  criticized for some of their beliefs and unjust practices such as the belief in the Divine nature of Jesus ( which Muslims understood as a form of shirk or polytheism),  the distortion of the (meaning) of the previous  texts of revelation (known as tahrif) or killing of previous Messengers of God . The reports about the Prophet Muhammad’s attitude regarding the religious other as given in the hadith literature reflect this Qur’anic contextuality and possibly ambivalence via-a-vis the religious other. The Qur’an is, however, unequivocal on the importance and beauty of dialogue with the just and upright religious others as evident in the following verses:

Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.’ If they turn away, say, ‘Witness our devotion to Him.’(3:64)

[Prophet], call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided. (16:125) 

[Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God are one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.’ (29:46)

The history of Islamic approaches to interreligious dialogue, especially with Christianity, has been significantly conditioned by both the highly contextual nature of the scriptural element described above but also by the extra-scriptural element. Regarding the latter it is important to keep in mind  that throughout the Middle Ages  the relationship between the Arabo-Islamic and  the Latin  ( and Byzantine)  Christian civilisations  took place in the context of  two  political and military colossi gripped by permanent political conflict and military warfare.  Both of the civilizations “blinded by their own light”, as Waardenburg (2003) vividly puts it, developed distorted views of the religious other constructing it as its archenemy. Highlighting the less favourable and more critical elements of the Muslim scripture and marginalizing its more conciliatory and amicable parts, the Islamic literature on Christianity and the Bible in particular during this period was dominated by polemical treaties which at times were written in form of harsh refutations of Christian and some of their beliefs such as accusations of tahrif and shirk (Erdmann, 1930; Waardenburg, 1999).  This state of affairs continued more or less unchanged until much more recent history (second half of the 20 the century onwards) when the Qur’anic emphasis on dialogue has been taken up more seriously by Muslim scholars such as M. Ayub, Ibrahim Kalin, and Farid Esack.  A significant case in point is the initiative of Muslim scholars by the name of “A Common Word” (Volf, bin Ghazi and Yerington 2010) whose foundation block is based on stressing the core common scriptural beliefs between Muslims and Christians, namely the love for God and the Love for your neighbour for the purposes of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. The initiative, having found significant acceptance, has since served as a point of reference for numerous subsequent interreligious dialogue activities.


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Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.