By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
14 February, 2014
A major purpose of what is called ‘interfaith’ or ‘inter-religious’ dialogue (or, more properly, dialogue between members of different religious communities) is for dialogue partners to understand and learn from each other. What, then, should be the scope of such dialogue? Should it focus on trying to understand each other’s religions? Or should it also include trying to understand each other’s economic, social, political conditions and problems, which are often a major cause for inter-community conflict? In other words, should such dialogue be theological, or sociological, or both?
Social issues are common in nature. When you carry on discussions on social issues, you are giving others something, and, at the same time, taking something from them. Discussion on social issues is our common worldly requirement. Here, the formula of the well-known thinker Jeremy Bentham is applicable: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” That is, many people sit together to discuss social issues of common concern, and whatever jointly emerges from the discussions should be adopted by all.
However, the arena of religion is quite different. Religion is related to the issue of Truth. In the matter of religion, if it is believed that all religious truth-claims are true, it would be tantamount to negation of Truth. Truth, on account of its very nature, requires oneness. Truth is one—that is Truth with the capital ‘T’. Every individual is required to seek Truth, and to find out the truth which according to his finding is the truth with the capital ‘T’. Without making this kind of finding, he will live in confusion.
We need, therefore, to differentiate between social issues and religious issues. There should be dialogue at both levels, but their purpose, it should be clear, is distinct.
Once, someone asked me, ‘If the purpose of interfaith dialogue is mutual learning about each other’s religions, of what benefit can learning about non-Muslim religions be for Muslims when, according to our belief, Islam is the truth—in which case, what need is there for Muslims to learn from or about non-Muslim religions?’
I replied to this question, saying that in terms of theory, Truth is one. Dialogue on religious issues is important in this search for Truth. It is extremely useful for people of various religions to share their experiences of searching for Truth with each other through such dialogue. It can help increase one’s knowledge, and through learning from others, one may benefit immensely. If one has found Truth with the capital ‘T’, he can share it with others through dialogue. And, if one is yet to reach the final goal in terms of Truth, dialogue with others can assist him in his search.
The same questioner asked me, ‘Do you think it is permissible, according to Islam, for Muslims to learn about and appreciate and praise good things in other religions?’ My reply was that yes, learning is a continuous process. It has no limits. Even if you have found out Truth with the capital ‘T’, you can still learn from others without losing your conviction. About myself, I can say that although I am convinced that I have found the Truth with the capital ‘T’, when I listen to others’ point of view, I do so with an objective mind. This nature of mine has been greatly beneficial for me.
So, even though you may have found the Truth, it does not mean that you ignore or are blind to the good things that many other religions contain. This is not what Islam teaches. The Islamic approach makes one curious about and sympathetic towards everyone, even towards those who follow other religions.
Some people might feel that appreciating good things in other religions may weaken their faith, and so they ignore the good things that many of these religions contain. This is an all-too-common tendency. But this kind of thinking is absolutely incorrect. Only ignorant people can argue in this manner. Speaking from the Islamic point of view, Islam gives you conviction. At the same time, it also gives you what is called in the Hadith as Samaha, that is, kindness or forbearance.
An important issue that needs to be sensitively approached is how followers of different religions engaging in dialogue should relate to aspects of each other’s religions that they do not agree with or regard as problematic. Sometimes, ‘interfaith’ dialogue efforts remain restricted to participants presenting the teachings of their respective religions but hesitating to critique, even on a rational or ethical basis, aspects in the other’s religions that they find problematic. They often, conceal, out of politeness, what they truly feel about the religion of their dialogue partners. They fear this might ruin the dialogue and upset their partners.
How Should Such Differences Be Dealt With In Dialogue?
The question of how to deal with the criticisms one might have of other religions in the course of ‘interfaith’ dialogue is a sensitive one. Much depends upon the academic tolerance of the participants. There are two conditions to be borne in mind if dialogue partners are to feel free to express their critical views of aspects of each other’s religions. Firstly, the critique should be very sympathetic or completely hate-free. And second, the listener should be balanced and objective. If participants in a dialogue can handle other’s critiques in a mature fashion and not get agitated, this can be allowed, otherwise not. It depends on the result.
Condemnation is not the Islamic method. The Islamic method is based on Nush that is, speaking out of well-wishing for others. If you are a well-wisher of others, you have the right to give your comments regarding their beliefs and practices, otherwise not. Speaking or making a comment about other’s beliefs and practices without the spirit of well-wishing for them leads to Fasad or strife. It has no positive outcome. It is certainly not in accordance with the Islamic method.
While discussing the issue of how to deal with differences while engaging in dialogue, it is pertinent to note that in the Quran, God clearly critiques the false beliefs of polytheists, and certain beliefs of those who call themselves Jews and Christians. Based on this, what should Muslims’ approach to discussing about other religions be when they dialogue with their followers?
In this regard, it is instructive to bear in mind that the Quran is not a book of dialogue. It is a book of statements. When you are issuing a statement, you can say everything and you are also allowed to give value judgment. But dialoguing is not meant for issuing statements. Rather, it is for the purpose of mutual learning and mutual understanding.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality.