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Interfaith Dialogue ( 31 Jan 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Interfaith Harmony through Dialogue



By Farida Khanam

India is a multi-religious society. It is imperative that harmony be maintained in a multi-religious society like India in which people have to live with differences. Now, difference is not simply a part of religion. In fact, it is an essential part of nature. It is a part of God’s creation plan itself. So we have no option other than to live with differences.

Harmony can only be maintained if we learn the formula of ‘difference management’ rather than seeking to eliminate differences. We have to understand that we have no option but to tolerate differences.

“Be tolerant; enjoin what is right; and avoid the ignorant.”[1]

Almost all major religions tell their adherents how to live in a multi-religious society with peace and harmony. We find this formula in the famous words of Jesus Christ:

“Love your enemies.”[2]

Love your enemy means to manage the problem of enmity by the power of love.

The same principle is given in the Quran in these words:

“Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”[3]

There is nothing mysterious about this. It is a well-known law of nature. It means that everyone is our potential friend. We have only to turn this potential into an actuality.

This Islamic principle was best represented by the Muslim Sufis in India. One Sufi poet has described this principle in this line in Persian:

“We don’t know the stories of kings and generals. We know only the stories of love and compassion.”

Muslim Sufis have devoted themselves to spreading the message of harmony, love and compassion for centuries. Due to these peaceful efforts on the part of the Sufis and saints, this spirit of love and compassion was so deeply embedded in our society that it became part and parcel of our value system.

The social integration we find today in India owes greatly to the efforts made by our Sufis and saints. In every field of life in India, people of different faiths work together in a peaceful atmosphere. This owes to a large extent due to the religious and spiritual spirit the Sufis and saints inculcated among the Indian people. It is true that there were some unpleasant events in Indian history, but they should be seen as exceptions rather than the rule.

According to the Indian experience, a multi-religious or multi-cultural society is not an evil. Rather, it is a blessing. Trying to eliminate differences destroys the very fabric of our own interests, and so we have no way other than to adjust to differences. This means that a multi-religious society leads us to make necessary adjustments. Consciously or unconsciously, this principle has been adopted on a large scale by the Indian people. We can see its effects all around us.

Centre for Peace and Spirituality

In India, we have many non-governmental groups that are undertaking interfaith dialogue. One such NGO with which I am associated is the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, or CPS International. Founded by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the organization conducts interfaith efforts by presenting the true face of Islam based on peace and tolerance. At CPS, we believe that we are living in a world of multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies – a world of differences. A reformer has rightly said that nature abhors uniformity. This means that ‘difference’ is a part of nature and it exists in every aspect of life. The art of ‘difference management’ in the context of religious plurality is only possible through meaningful and positive dialogue between people on all aspects of life, including religion.

According to my understanding of Islam, the aim of dialogue is to seek peaceful solutions to controversial matters in spite of their differences. By giving people respect and honour, difference can sometimes turn into blessings. The result will be dialogue, a sharing of views, which can result in intellectual development, which is a boon for everyone concerned. I would like to put forward to you some of the teachings of Islam that CPS International puts forward in its efforts:

1. All mankind is a single family: Islam teaches that all mankind is a single family. The Quran declares: “O mankind! Fear your Lord, who created you from a single soul. He created its mate from it and from the two of them spread countless men and women [throughout the earth]”. [4]

This means that all men and women share a common ancestor. That is, all men and women are a blood brothers and blood sisters to one another. There is complete commonality between different races and groups of people.

2. Do unto others, as you would be done by: According to a Hadith report contained in the Sahih Muslim, the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said: “Do with others what you want others to do with you”. The same maxim is to be found in Judaism. As mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hillel the Elder is known to have said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” This is a universal teaching, which is found in almost every religion. This religious teaching gives us a very simple criterion for living as a good member of society. Everybody knows what is good for him and what is bad for him. Apply this personal experience to every member of society. If everyone observes this formula of moral conduct, the whole society will emerge as a good society. This formula, a common religious formula, is the simplest for social construction.

3. Peace: The Quran lays great emphasis on peace. For example, there is a verse in the Quran which says: “Reconciliation is best.”[5]That is, in the case of controversy, adopt a peaceful rather than a confrontational course of action. Giving prime importance to this verse, the Sufis have adopted the following formula: ‘Sulk-e-Kul’ (Peace with all).This concept has also been adopted by other religions as their basic teaching. For example, the Bible says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”[6] It is a fact that peace is a common teaching of all the religions. It is also a fact that peace is the Summum Bonum; peace is the greatest good which leads to the building of a better society; without peace, there is no development. Peace provides the environment in which every group can flourish without being harmful to others. Peaceful living is the most important part of moral living.

Regulation of Society

India is a multi-religious society. It is important that a harmonious relationship between be established between members of different faiths who live in the country. All religious groups should work towards this goal. This is all the more important as no religious activity can be carried out in the absence of normal social conditions. It is, therefore, in the best interests of all the religions that moral behaviour be recognized as the greatest means of normalizing the relationship between the different sections of a society and ensuring peaceable living conditions. In view of this, we can understand that every religion teaches its members to adopt a good moral standard.

There are ample references in all the religions that provide us with a good base for building a better society through partnership. This is the basic role of every religion. Without playing this role, religion becomes irrelevant to humanity.

One very important principle taught in Islam is that of positive status quoism, that is, accepting the prevailing situation. Using this principle, one can maintain unilateral ethics at all times. Here are a few examples of the Prophet of Islam in this regard:

When the Prophet Muhammad began his mission of Tawhid (unity of God) in ancient Makkah, there existed, as usual, a status quo. The Quraysh had assumed the leadership of the town, and, in line with their beliefs, they had established an idolatrous system. Now, the question arose as to how the Prophet Muhammad should begin his work. It might have seemed that the status quo under the hegemony of the Quraysh would have to be abolished and only then would the path be cleared for Prophet’s mission. At that juncture, certain basic guidance was revealed to the Prophet. God declared in the Quran: “So, surely with every hardship there is ease; surely, with every hardship there is ease.”[7]

This verse showed the Prophet of Islam that in spite of the obstacles, by the very law of nature, opportunities for the furtherance of the aims he was working for also existed side by side. Therefore, no attempt to change the status quo was to be made in the first stage itself. Without disturbing the prevailing situation, such opportunities as were available in other fields were to be utilized to promote the Islamic mission.

The method Islam prescribes for the achievement of our goals and the model we find in the life of the Prophet can be described, in brief, as a method and model based on positive status quoism—that is, remaining in harmony with the status quo and launching one’s efforts in the sphere of the possible. In this respect, it may be called ‘positive status quoism’.

However, the status quoism of the Prophet did not simply mean accepting the extant sets of circumstances for all time. It meant, rather, carving out a path by adopting a non-confrontational policy within the existing set-up. Far from leading to a state of inertia, this was a planned course of action.

The Prophet of Islam followed this principle in his life at Makkah as well as at Madinah. This is one of the reasons for his achieving such great success–within a short period of 23 years–as had never been achieved by anyone throughout the entire course of human history. The great benefit of such status quoism is that, by adopting this policy, one is instantly able to avail of opportunities for carrying out one's projects. One is in a position to utilize one's energies fully in one's mission without wasting an iota of effort. By avoiding unnecessary clash and confrontation, one is able to devote oneself to constructive activity to the fullest extent.

In social matters, positive status quoism is thus an unalterable policy of Islam. It was by opting for this policy that the Prophet and his companions forged the great history of Islam, which heralded a new era in human civilization. It is through following this principle that any individual can maintain unilateral ethics.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to share an example of inter-community harmony in India. At a seminar on ‘Religion and Humanitarianism’ held under the auspices of the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, at the Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi in 1993, one of the speakers, Dr. Bishambhar Nath Pandey, recalled an incident that took place in 1926 in what is now Madhya Pradesh. A Hindu procession had been planned to provoke Muslims into rioting. The procession, beating drums and shouting slogans, was deliberately organized on a Friday. Ten thousand strong, it arrived in front of a mosque, exactly at prayer time, where it started to create an uproar.

Now Mr. Karamat Husain, a reputed political activist of the town, had gained prior knowledge of this plan. Before the arrival of the procession, he reached the mosque along with a hundred of his colleagues, each of whom he had provided with a garland. When the procession came to a halt in front of the mosque, he asked the other Muslims who had come there to pray to remain silent. Then, initiating a pre-pre-planned move, he came out of the mosque with his colleagues and walked towards the procession. He neither told the procession to go by another route nor demanded that they stop shouting slogans. Instead, he said—“We welcome you!” And then he and his colleagues began garlanding the Hindus one by one. Now the entire atmosphere underwent a sea change! The processionists stopped forthwith. Those who had gathered there to cause a riot began embracing the Muslims. The atmosphere of enmity had been dispelled and had changed all at once into an atmosphere of amity!

This is exemplary of how we should maintain interfaith harmony in India. A multi-religious society like India needs religious groups to work together to ensure interfaith harmony through dialogue to maintaining positive relations between members of society.

 [1]Quran 7:199

[2]New Testament: Matthew 5:44

[3]Quran 41:34

[4]Quran 4:1

[5]Quran 4:128

[6]Matthew 5:9

[7]Quran 94:5-6

Farida Khanam teaches at the Dept. of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi