By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
8 September 2015
As I enter the solitude of prayer
I put these matters to Him, for He knows
That's my prayer-time habit, to turn and talk
That's why it's said "My heart delights in prayer"
Through pureness a window opens in my soul
God's message comes immediate to me
Through my window the Book, the rain and light
All pour into my room from gleaming source
Hell's the room in which there is no window
To open windows, that's religion's goal
Jalaluddin Rumi Masnavi 3: 2400-2404
We are living in the most troubled times in the history of mankind. Perhaps in no other epoch we have demonstrated such abysmal levels of intolerance for each other’s faith and dignity. A creed should be a glue that must hold the human world together .Sadly it has become the igniting spark for inflaming the passions into a precipitous volcano that relentlessly threatens to devour this great generation. Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disasters. At that scale, our response must be as one. Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers – it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.
While we may never be able to stop violence in the name of religion, we can prevent it at home and in our lives by remembering and instilling in each other basic ethical principles that are cherished by all religious traditions. Deep within their hearts all humans hold dear the values of compassion, tolerance and love .These eternal and timeless values transcend the barriers of creed ,caste ,class, colour, country and community. In a world that has been blinded by lust for power, material gain, and prestige, people of faith need to stand together to defend and promote what all religious traditions hold as the highest human--and divine--values. Dialogue and encounter within and between our different faith communities must build on these common values and communicate them to a world in desperate need of re-establishing its moral centre.
There is no doubt that relations between the Muslim world and the West are often dominated by simmering distrust and antagonistic feelings although they may not always boil over. Tensions and recriminations abound and so do arguments and justifications. The need to find common grounds do not get translated into intentions or sincere efforts to move forward as the past casts a long shadow over the present. Typecasting a billion-plus fellow human beings or their faith as objects of dread or hatred needs to be prevented. There is an urgent need for a dialogue across disparate religions for solutions to a convulsive world. There are several points and principles that can enable people of all faiths to live in peace and harmony with each other and join hands against all those from multiple sides who seek to fan the fire of hatred and to precipitate clashes of civilizations and nations.
From the Crusades of the 11th century to the Turkish expansion of the 15th century to the colonial era in the early 20th century, Islam and the West have often battled militarily. This tension has existed for hundreds of years, during which there have been many periods of peace and even harmony. Until the 1950s, for example, Jews and Christians lived peaceably under Muslim rule. In fact, Bernard Lewis, the pre-eminent historian of Islam, has argued that for much of history religious minorities did better under Muslim rulers than they did under Christian ones. All that has changed in the past few decades. So surely the relevant question we must ask is, why are we in a particularly difficult phase right now? What has gone wrong in the world of Islam that explains not the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 or the siege of Vienna of 1683 but Sept. 11, 2001?
The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: the hatred feeds on hatred. Ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes replace fact and reality. Similarly Muslims have their own misconceptions. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non –Muslims, create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail. Let us allow the flowers of truth to bloom. That is the right approach.
Transcending the Barriers of Faith
Educating the heart, the mind and the imagination in order to train ourselves to see better, hear better, perceive better and understand better is one of the requirements of the autonomy and freedom that lie at the heart of modernity, of advanced technologies and of the globalization of the means of communication. As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” We lack confidence: confidence in ourselves, confidence in God, confidence in man, and confidence in the future. Fears, doubts, phobias and mistrust imperceptibly colonize our hearts and minds. We have to get back to some elementary truths in life. We have to set out on a new journey and ask ourselves the same essential questions we have been taught to ask in our nursery age and look for meanings. Our parents had already resolved our dilemmas, but we have messed up the whole simple issue by our arrogance and our so perceived superior intelligence. We have to now travel inwards, and relearn and restate the truth.
We have to foster an attitude of intellectual modesty and humility. Every human being must realize that he needs to take stock of what he or she is, and understand what is his or her beliefs, certainties and contradictions, conviction and self-doubt and of the freedoms and prisons of both his and of those who surround him. We need to have a philosophy of introspection, a faith, morality or religion, the practice of initiation or self denial; in any case we have to make a choice. If we do not, life will someday force us to question our choice. We are living in changing times. With the world increasingly shrunk, all of us will be involved and not only through the television in living rooms but in far more direct ways than we can imagine. It is time for the people of vision to transcend their positions and aim to build bridges towards each other. We need to understand each other dispassionately, with a view to living together as good neighbours. The tragedies of history goad people into a spiritual quest in order to find the ultimate spiritual meaning in what often seems to be a succession of random, arbitrary and dispiriting incidents.
Religious belief is often portrayed as the inevitable enemy of tolerance. This caricature is deeply mistaken. Tolerance is a virtue that requires deep religious or moral conviction. Moreover, it is rooted in a conception of the self that is rich enough to ground respect among diverse people. The virtue of tolerance leads to a type of behaviour that is conducive to cohabitation by people with deeply different beliefs and practices from one’s own. This disposition requires nurturing through exposure to various scriptures and the writings of great sages in order to neautralise our natural inclination to view and reject the other as a burden or threat. Sceptical accounts of religious diversity undermine this religious grounding of tolerance and threaten the very diversity they wish to preserve. The Judaeo-Christian-Muslim conception of creation in the image of God is a powerful catalyst for shaping a mindset that is conceptually very essential for tolerance. The same pluralistic approach of the Abrahamic faiths should be reciprocated by other communities
Religion provides the structure and the principles to guide this universal need. To those who are looking, it is not hard to find fundamental principles shared by the world’s religious traditions in their efforts to move adherents toward the goal of loving as God loves. One such principle is known within Christianity as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A Buddhist would say, “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” A follower of Confucius would say, “What you yourself do not desire, do not put before others.” Islam states the same thing in the following words: “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you.” And Hinduism says: “This is the sum of true righteousness - treat others as you would yourself be treated.” Other principles shared by the world’s religions include the goal of alleviating human suffering, avoiding harm to others, and striving towards empathy - or learning to identify with the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable to the world’s ills. These interrelated principles are all firmly rooted in the commitment to pursue true love.
The purpose of interfaith dialogue is to increase our understanding of and respect for other religious systems and institutions, thereby increasing our appreciation of their values. Dialogue should enhance our sensitivity to the feelings of all professing religious people in their relationship with God. Inter-faith dialogue is not based on a model of negotiation between parties who have conflicting interests and claims. Rather it sees its role as a process of mutual empowerment for the faiths involved. It is about engagement in public concerns and the joint pursuit of social justice, human dignity and constructive action on behalf of the common good of all citizens. In this endeavour followers of faiths are expected to draw upon their spiritual resources. In fact the demands that our faiths put on us, in a simple and straightforward manner, are demands that require enormous courage and charity.”
Mutual Understanding of the Multiple Scriptures
There is a need for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to approach both the Qur’ānic text and the practices set out by it Prophet with fresh eyes. For non-Muslims, there is a need to make an effort to see what is so special about the Qur’ān, its Messenger, the Message and practices that convince Muslims to regulate their lives according to its teachings, what motivates and generates passion, and finally how the Qur’ān has shaped their thought and behaviour. They must introspect why Islamic scholarship that led the world civilization for centuries has degenerated into a state of inertia. The challenge both for Muslims and non-Muslims is to read the Qur’ān on its own terms, to engage with its text unencumbered and incrusted, and free of the prejudices and biases that have spun around it through years of influence from diverse cultural strands.
Religious faith itself when directed to God can be emptied of dogma and doctrine but it will always hold good deeds as noble values in themselves, good deeds are what God himself desires. As the Qur'an says, "If God had wanted, he could have made you one community. So compete with one another in doing good deeds, so that he may test you by what he has given you." (5:48)
Muslims historically have had differing attitudes to other religions, especially Jewish and Christian communities. In turning to the Qur'an, unity and diversity of humanity are coexisting themes in the Qur'an and can be interpreted to support either inclusivist or exclusivist claims. Many Muslim exegetes fleshed this out into a particular understanding – that the primordial religion of all people was Islam i.e, people who were Allah's servants in their submission to him started with Adam, considered to be the first prophet.
The issue is not that Jews and Christians are not recognized for these were established faiths and communities by the 6th century and moreover Muslims must acknowledge past prophets as part of their devotional creed. The tensions lay in how they are to be perceived theologically as well as in socio-legal relations with Muslims. The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
The following are only a few examples of God’s Unity, God says in the Holy Qur'an:
"Say: He is God, the One! God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all!" (Q 112:1-2)
Of the necessity of love for God, God says in the Holy Qur'an: "So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion." (Q 73:8).
Of the necessity of love for the neighbour, the Prophet Muhammad said: "None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself."
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ said: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment./And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31)
In the Qur'an, God enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians (and Jews - the People of the Scripture):
"Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)." (Q 3:64)
A Dialogue between Faiths
The Quran not only instructs Muslims to engage in dialogue with others, but also indicates how this dialogue should be carried out—‘in a way that is best’. Thus, it says, ‘And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, “We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.” (Quran 29:46).
God addresses Muslims ,Jews and Christians with following: “To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute (Q5:48).The Qur’an allows Muslims to eat the food of the People of the Book and marry their women (Q5:5) these are explicit statements which Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue should rely upon.
In the book A History of God the acclaimed proponent of mutuality of faiths, Karen Armstrong states:
“When the Christian Waraqa ibn Nawfal had acknowledged Muhammad as a true prophet, neither he nor Muhammad expected him to convert to Islam. Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to convert to his religion of Allah unless they particularly wished to do so, because they had received authentic revelation of their own. The Qur’an did not see revelation as cancelling out the message and insights of previous prophets but instead it stressed the continuity of the religious experience of mankind. It is important to stress this point because tolerance is not a virtue that many western people today would feel inclined to attribute to Islam. Yet, from the start, Muslims saw revelation in less exclusive terms than either Jews or Christians.”
Pope Francis has however warned:
“As experience has shown for (inter-religious) dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions. Certainly, such dialogue will accentuate how varied our beliefs, traditions and practices are. But if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common. New avenues will be opened for mutual esteem, cooperation and indeed friendship.
“For too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division. Surely the fostering of healing and unity is a noble task which is incumbent upon all who have at heart the good of the nation, and indeed the whole human family.”
He says: “For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.”
One positive development is the emergence of a Western Muslim sensibility that integrates the basic tenets of Islam with precious occidental values. A seedling Islamic Reformation is starting to appear. Disparate thinkers, writers, feminists and "Westernised" Muslims are thinking aloud, extracting new meanings from their texts and unloading oppressive orthodoxies - always a brave thing to do, but vastly more if you are a Muslim in the 21st century. But not all reformists deserve inordinate enthusiasm. Some of those eagerly embraced by powerful Westerners are shallow and play to this audience. They understand their faith not as a rigid rule book, but as an inseparable companion with whom you constantly converse. The great majority of the verses in the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature.
Interfaith dialogue cannot make any headway if dialogue partners don’t work on themselves. One has to embody the virtues that one preaches; otherwise, dialoguing can make no headway at all. There is need for centrality of love, altruism, gentleness, universal compassion, tolerance and forgiveness in terms of inter-personal and inter-community relationships. If we aren’t loving, altruistic, gentle, compassionate, tolerant and willing to forgive people and overlook their faults, not only can we not engage in genuine dialogue with others, but we also cannot measure up to what our religions expect of us.
Exploring Common Ground
For a purposeful and meaningful dialogue among people of diverse faiths it is necessary to distil some fundamental principles that bond them and then work towards strengthening them.
These Principles Are:
Respect for Life
There has to be a fundamental respect for human lives expressed in the dictum “Life is sacred.” The purpose was to create a cosmopolitan culture of citizenship in which expressions like “crimes against humanity” would find a precise operational meaning.
This respect for life runs counter to a world that sees human life as expendable for reasons of political power, economic gain, or even, supposedly, of religion. It calls for the condemnation not only of overt violence but also of threats to human life arising from poverty and oppression, including lack of access to health care, adequate food and water, and sanitary living conditions. It also calls for care and protection of the environment and all its natural resources.
Respect for Dignity
All religions recognize human beings as fundamentally equal and hold that human life has meaning and purpose, in that humans are entrusted with the welfare not only of other humans but also of all creation--a responsibility they bear as God's noble deputies (in theistic religion) or as the highest form of sentient life (in non-theistic traditions). Respect for human dignity is, therefore, another fundamental principle of all religions.
This principle rules out discrimination against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, ancestry, socio-economic status, gender or disability. Seen positively, the principle of equal dignity calls for respect for all human beings, even those with whom we most profoundly disagree or whose cultures or lifestyles seem most alien to us. Recognition of the equal worth of all is, therefore, essential to building a world community of wholeness and peace in this age of globalization.
Respect for Religion and Conscience
Religious belief is often portrayed as the inevitable enemy of tolerance. This caricature is deeply mistaken. Tolerance is a virtue that requires deep religious or moral conviction. Moreover, it is rooted in a conception of the self that is rich enough to ground respect among diverse people. The virtue of tolerance leads to a type of behaviour that is conducive to cohabitation by people with deeply different beliefs and practices from one’s own. This disposition requires nurturing through exposure to various scriptures and the writings of great sages in order to neautralise our natural inclination to view and reject the other as a burden or threat. Sceptical accounts of religious diversity undermine this religious grounding of tolerance and threaten the very diversity they wish to preserve. The Judaeo-Christian-Muslim conception of creation in the image of God is a powerful catalyst for shaping a mindset that is conceptually very essential for tolerance. The same pluralistic approach of the Abrahamic faiths should be reciprocated by other communities.
Respect for Freedom of Thought and Expression
Respect for freedom of thought and expression follows from respect for the human being. The defining characteristic of humanity is precisely the ability to think and to express one's thoughts and feelings in words or by other means. To fetter the freedom to do this is to cut off the root of a person's humanity; it is to truncate the essence of being human.
Every human activity needs freedom (of speech) in order to achieve its fullest range of actions. As Jose Marti summed up in his interview in The New Yorker of 27 May, 1975, “Like the bone to human body, and the axle to the wheel, and the song to a bird, and air to the wing thus is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without is imperfect.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the learned judge of the US Supreme Court, believed that, “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought – not free thought only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.”
Respect for others: the Golden Rule
Most of the strains and tensions in life are due to the fact that we lack the sovereign virtue of tolerance. We are angry and irritated because the other does not think as we do, live as we live and worship before the same Gods as we do. True tolerance is based upon respect for the dignity of the individual. It recognizes the right of every one to experiment with his life and to live according to his own lights. The lights may not be the city lights – they might burn on the mountaintops or in forlorn caves – but to the person whose lights they are, they are the only authentic ones and all others are false.
Focusing On the Sanctity of Peace
Throughout history, communities have learnt much from each other. Today as well, there is an increasing global trend to learn from and celebrate the diversity of faiths in many ways. This discussion leads us to the realisation that sectarian numbers and who ‘owns’ the truth are complex issues. We need to look at Muslim diversity with respect, humility, responsibility, and celebration rather than through the prism of sectarianism.
Let there be no bloodshed just because one sect believes and practices its faith in a particular way. All are seeking the truth. The Qur’an refers to this positive outlook in many verses and an example is: “… if thy Lord willed, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou (Muhammad) compel men until they are believers? It is not for any soul to believe save by the permission of Allah. He hath set uncleanness upon those who have no understanding” (Q10:99-100).
The Quran has laid three basic principles to resolve political conflicts in the following verses: "let not a people's enmity incite you to act other than with justice. Be always just" (5:9), "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:257) and "obey Allah and His Messenger and those who are in authority among you" (4:60). The verses mandate (i) obedience to those in power (regardless of whether those in authority are Muslim or otherwise), (ii) justice and fairness even when dealing with enemy and (iii) complete freedom from religious oppression. Needless to say, every contemporary conflict stems from when, one way or another, these principles are broken.
Muslim scholars, political leaders and civic society must emphasize the pluralistic message of the Qur’an and urgently address the pervasive exclusivist attitude among many Muslims. Neglecting the pluralistic message of the Quran has allowed fringe groups to use anachronistic stereotypes about fellow Muslims, people of other faiths and entire nation-states, to unleash a form of violence rooted in extreme interpretations of Islamic eschatology (the study of end-of-time). From divisive identity politics to deranged messianic violence, all have their genesis in wilful disregard of pluralism as a core Qur’anic value. It is not coincidental that societies that have embraced pluralism also tend to be more successful and peaceful.
Today, nations are beset with narrow-mindedness and selfish interests, no less than Arab tribalism. Prophet Muhammad's pact, for example, could serve as a light to resolving the present Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it lays the guiding principle that resources must be shared equitably between nations and that attacking innocent civilians is unacceptable.
Quran’s Philosophy of Pluralism
The Islamic vision of pluralism is build around the philosophy of tolerance of diversity in thought and belief. One may, of course, devalue the other person’s beliefs without devaluing the person who holds those beliefs. The tolerant person wills to treat the person with significantly differing beliefs and practices as intrinsically valuable in spite of that person’s rejection of her fundamental human concerns. Tolerance is the cultivated disposition to subdue our natural inclination to distance, reject or persecute others whose beliefs and practices differ from our own. The tolerant person is, rather, disposed to recognise the other as an object of inestimable worth. The tolerant person says, in effect, “Our fundamental disagreement does not diminish my estimation of your worth as a human being and, therefore, though I disagree with your beliefs or practices, still I will endure them.” Intolerance, on the other hand, acceding to the natural inclination to devalue the other, encourages the rejection of the person. Principled tolerance, bears up the person who holds differing beliefs and practices as being of fundamental human concern and urges us to say, “I will resist the temptation to think of myself as better than you owing to our differing beliefs and practices. I value you as a person, a divine image-bearer. I will work to create a society wherein your beliefs and practices may shape your life as you see fit.”
It is unfortunate that some Muslims, typically those who hold extremely conservative and narrow minded views, vigorously campaign against interfaith dialogue, citing Qur’anic verses such as: “It is He Who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of Truth that he may proclaim it over all religions, even though the disbelievers may detest [it]” (Q61:9).They claim that this verse condemns interfaith dialogue. However, analyzing this verse within a wider Islamic context, analysts have suggested that such an interpretation is incorrect.
The essence and instruction of this verse bring us to the realization that, “first, Islam is the message of truth and that Muslims have to do their best to spread it. Second, some people always resist the truth when it is brought to their community. And third, Muslims must be ready to face the ensuing consequences and find positive ways to deal with them. As we know, truth cannot be spread amidst hostility, but only with proper behavior and patience. One has to do one’s best to create a peaceful environment of trust. The Prophet provided us with such a model when he signed the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah with his Makkan opponents, the very ones who had expelled him and his followers from Makkah. He could see that this treaty would lead to peace and that by signing it, the Muslims would be able to move freely in a peaceful atmosphere and spread Islam. This verse demands that Muslims build good relations with others
The Qur'an is meant to be universal, and clearly speaks to all of humanity: "O mankind! We have created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)" (Q49:13)
The Path Ahead
The way forward lies in creating awareness among people about the true pacifist face of all faiths. Similarly bigotry should not only be condemned when it applies to one's own particular religion. It should be condemned when it applies to any religion. Jews should not simply condemn or focus on anti-Semitism and Muslims on Islamophobia, but we need to be united in speaking out against bigotry and extremism wherever it occurs. Edmund Burke once said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. It is important that people with deep commitments to their own spiritual traditions figure out ways of connecting with the extremists within their faith orientations and get the discussion going as to what love and justice require for their religious brothers and sisters and those brothers and sisters in other traditions. Everyone must be willing to do his/her own part to help spread the truth, erase misconceptions and live in peace. The process of dialogue must not cease .This will help renewing our faith and commitment to peace. Never forget that huge changes can be achieved through surprisingly small steps. What is important is the sincerity of intentions.
Guftagu Band Na Ho Baat Se Baat Chale
Subah Tak Sham-e-Mulaqaat Chale...
Regzaron Se Adavat Ke Guzar Jayenge
Khoon Ke Dariyaon Se Hum Paar Utar Jayenge
(Keep the dialogue going, one word leading to another,
The evening rendezvous lasting till dawn
We shall cross the deserts of hate
And bridge the rivers of blood).
(Ali Sardar Jafri –Sarhad)
Let's build bridges and break barriers!
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and journalist. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He received an Honorary D Litt. at the World Congress of Poets at Istanbul in 1991. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications and was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur.