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Interfaith Dialogue ( 29 Jan 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Peace and Harmony through Interfaith Dialogue


By Naghma Siddiqi

Society, in general, is witnessing ‘a quantum leap in violence,’ in the form of hatred, confrontation, enmity, conflict and civil strife. One of the main reasons for this is that people are increasingly reacting to differences and problems around them based on the culture of violence and confrontation. In India, as in any other multi-cultural and multi-religious society, it is important that differences not be allowed to escalate into violence by ensuring that a culture of peace and reconciliation prevails. A culture of violence and confrontation prevails when people consider the only way of settling differences and problems to be through hostility, violence and war; while the culture of peace and reconciliation prevails when people learn to rise above such issues to seek peaceful solutions to controversial matters.

Interfaith dialogue is an important means of training people in the culture of peace and reconciliation. When people and organizations of different faiths come together to hold meaningful dialogue, they are able to find peaceful solutions to their differences, not by eliminating them, but by managing them, and also learn to live together based on the culture of peace and reconciliation.

The main reason that problems occur is society is that each and every person is free. In his famous book, Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who laid the foundation of democracy in the modern world, wrote ‘Man was born free’.[1] This point is mentioned in the Quran in chapter 18, verse 29, the essential meaning of which is that each person has been given freedom by God Almighty Himself. From the Islamic point of view, this is for the purpose of testing man, as given in these words:

‘It is He Who has made you successors of others on the earth and has exalted some of you over the others in degrees of rank so that He may test you.’[2]

And when people are free, they are as free to misuse their freedom as they are to use it properly. When people misuse their freedom, it creates problems for others in society. As a result man, is forced to live in a world in which he faces problems all around him. While certain people consider this as a ‘problem of evil’; from the Islamic perspective this is not an evil but a reality of life. The direct result of the test of man is that there are problems and difficulties in the world, as explained in the Quran thus:

‘We have created man in a life of toil and trial.’[3]

From the Islamic point of view, those who Almighty God considers to have passed the test of this world will be held eligible to inhabit the ideal world of the hereafter, another name of which is Paradise. It is only in Paradise that people will find an abode of their liking, termed as the “home of peace” (Quran 10: 25), where it is said:

‘you shall have all that your soul’s desire.’[4]

In this world in which everyone has freedom, to use or misuse as he chooses to, those who want to maintain harmony in society have to understand that problems and differences are an integral part of life because no one can take the freedom away from people to whom God Almighty Himself has given freedom. In such a situation, one who wants to live in harmony with others has accept the realistic, ‘as it is’, situation, instead of looking for an ideal, tot6ally-problem free situation.

Realism (achievable)                                                  Idealism (unachievable)

Nature abhors uniformity.                                           There should be uniformity in the world

Accepting a realistic world, ‘as it is’ thinking             Desiring a dream world, wishful thinking

Ready to manage desires, realistic living                   Wanting to live a life fulfilling all desires

Differences are a part of life, to be managed           Striving for a difference-free society

When we seek out to secure an ideal situation in this world, it often leads to confrontation, and, eventually, to violence in society. It is only when we are ready to be realistic and accept the ‘as it is’ situation (in other words, to accept the status quo) and follow the culture of peace and reconciliation unilaterally will we be able to form a harmonious society. We have to change ourselves, instead of asking others to change.

Change Yourself

M. K. Gandhi said, “Be the Change that you wish to see in the world”. UNESCO’s Culture of Peace Programme gives the principle of transformation in these words:

‘Change begins with individuals who work to make their dreams come true. We begin by believing that a Culture of Violence can change to a Culture of Peace.’[5]

This principle is given in Islam in these words:

‘God does not change the condition of a people’s lot, unless they change what is in their hearts.’[6]

This means that one has to change oneself of one’s own free will and unilaterally adjust with people. If we want others to change, we cannot enforce our views on them. We can only motivate and educate them through peaceful dialogue and persuasion. People have to want to change themselves on their own. If they do so, we should be thankful; and if they do not, we should be tolerant and patient.

There are certain principles found in religious sources that can be used to undertake such a dialogue towards positive change.

Principle of Reciprocity

The first principle is that of reciprocity based on the golden rule of ethics which is taught in almost every religion. It is taught in Islam, and is also mentioned in the Bible and in the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, as, for instance, indicated below:

‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ [7]

‘One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.’[8]

‘A believer is one who likes for others what he likes for himself.’[9]

The principle of reciprocity refers to a universal principle of ethics, that we should treat others as we want others to treat us. We all know what attitude we want or do not want from others. We should simply follow the same in our dealings with others. If we want positive speech and behaviour from others, we have to also speak and behave positively with them. If we do not want others to stand in our way, we have to likewise ensure that we do not stand in the way of others.

Brotherhood of Man

The principle of reciprocity is based on the brotherhood of man. It is exemplified in the Hindu scriptures as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The Mahopanishad says:

“The whole world is one single family” [10]

This is also a central theme in other religions like Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam.[11] According to a Hadith report, the Prophet of Islam said, ‘All creatures are part of God’s family, and the more lovable man to God is the one who is more beneficial to His family.’

The main reason for confrontation in society is that people easily get provoked when others misuse their freedom, resulting in feelings of hatred, ill-wishing, mutual hostility, intolerance, etc. for others. People are not willing to adjust with others because they consider them to be ‘them’, rather than ‘us’, as belonging to some ‘other’ family, friends, community, nation, etc.. If people understand the principle of brotherhood of man, they will be ready to adjust with others as they do with their family and friends in times of controversy. When we understand the teaching of the brotherhood of man, we consider all mankind as our family, and then it becomes easy to consider them a part of our ‘own’ group. Once we understand this principle, we will not look at them as ‘the other’. As a result, in times of controversy, instead of getting provoked, our response would be based on compassion, well-wishing, mutual respect, unilateral tolerance and patience. This leads to avoidance of controversy in society and to social harmony and peace.

Principle of Non-Confrontation

Another principle of dialogue is that of non-confrontation, which is derived from the following verse of the Quran with respect to the movement of planets:

‘Each floats in its own orbit.’[12]

Just as planets have continued to move in the universe for millions of years without colliding with other planetary bodies, so, too, if one wants to maintain harmony in society, one has to confine one’s activities to one’s own sphere, without interfering in or confronting with the spheres of others. How can we do this? When we strive towards our goals in society, we should carve out a path for ourselves without confronting with the path of others.

A corollary to this is the principle of avoidance. When we undergo any negative experience, we should not confront with others by getting provoked and seeking revenge. At such times, we should, following the principle of avoidance, continue to strive towards our own goals. Thus, the principle of non-confrontation and avoidance ensures that we maintain peace in society, while reaction or confrontation will only lead to conflict and violence in society.

Unilateral Ethics

Another important principle of dialogue is that of unilateral ethics. This is given in the Bible in these words:

‘Love your enemy.’[13]

In the Quran, it is given in these words:

‘Repel evil with good. And you will find that one who was your enemy will become your dearest friend.’[14]

When others misuse their freedom, we should not retaliate with feelings of anger, hatred and revenge. Instead, we should maintain unilateral ethics and convert these negative experiences within ourselves and respond positively to them. For bad treatment, one must return good, for ill-intentions, one should respond by wishing well for others. And so on. While it is not easy to follow this principle, it is the only way to continue to strive towards our positive goals and maintain harmony and peace in society.

Ease with Hardship

According to the Quran, differences and problems are accompanied by opportunities. This is a universal law of life, which is given in the Quran in these words:

‘With every hardship there is ease, with every hardship there is ease.’[15]

When there are problems and difficulties around us, at the same time there are also opportunities. What we need to do is strive towards the opportunities by avoiding the problems. This is the only way to maintain harmony in society and continue to strive towards one’s positive goals.

An important aspect to understand is that differences and problems are in themselves not something negative; they can also have a positive role. They are actually there to help us develop intellectually. Problems and differences, when considered as something negative, evoke a negative reaction; but when looked upon with a positive mind, as challenges, they elicit a positive response. They can then enable to advance their individual development, which leads to development in society. Arnold Toynbee in his book, A Study of History has attributed all developments of history to this challenge-response mechanism.[16]Such development, at both the individual level and, cumulatively, at the social level, can only occur when, in the face of problems and differences, one adopts the policy of avoidance of problems and differences, rather than confronting with them in futile efforts to remove them. For one who wants to achieve this, the only path is that of patience and tolerance in the face of difficulty. This is given in the Quran in these words:

‘Be tolerant; enjoin what is right; and avoid the ignorant.’[17]

When faced with a problem, we should follow the principle of problem management, rather than problem elimination. Instead of striving to eliminate problems by confronting with others, if one adopts a realistic approach and remains tolerant, it will result in a harmonious society in which individuals are free to strive towards their goals and develop themselves intellectually. This requires that we rise above the negativity to practice patience. This is explained in the Bible in the following words:

‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’[18]

Being patient in times of tribulation is the only way to succeed in life and maintain harmony in society. The following tradition of the Prophet of Islam, recorded in the Sunan Ibn Majah, explains this principle:

“Ibn Umar reported that the Prophet of Islam said, ‘Muslims who live in the midst of society and bear with patience the afflictions that come to them are better than those who shun society and cannot bear any wrong done to them.’”

This principle of dialogue explains that while there are two ways to respond to negative situations—either by getting provoked and confronting others, or by responding positively to the situation—the latter is the better way. When we get provoked at the wrong actions of others, it clouds our judgment. As a result, we are not able to manage the situation we are faced with. If, on the other hand, we are able to remain patient at such times, we will be able to keep our minds free to plan on how to deal with the task at hand so that we are better able to strategize to achieve our goals.


An important principle of dialogue in this regard is that of forgiveness. The Hindu scriptures use the word Titiksha, defined as forbearance;[19] while the word used in Islamic scriptures for this is Maghfira, meaning forgiveness, as explained in the following tradition of the Prophet of Islam, reported in the Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal:

“Jarir reported that the Prophet of Islam said, ‘He who does not show mercy to others will not be shown mercy. Anyone who does not forgive will not be forgiven.’”

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

‘For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’[20]

Forgiveness is an important principle to follow as far as maintaining harmony in society and striving towards one’s goals is concerned. What forgiveness does is to take one beyond a potential problematic issue. If we do not forgive others, then we will continue to dwell on the issue. The result will be that our mind will continue to be embroiled in negative activities and we will not be able to think and act positively. It is only by forgiving others that we will be able to maintain harmony in society and also be able to continue to strive towards our positive goals.

In Conclusion

Undertaking dialogue based on religious sources is the best way of maintaining harmony in society. Interfaith dialogue aimed at learning from each other makes us tolerant of each other’s views and shortcomings. When we train ourselves in the principles of dialogue, we are able to follow unilateral ethics, shun the culture of violence and confrontation and imbibe the culture of peace and reconciliation. This leads to peace and development in the wider society.

Naghma Siddiqi is a member of New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality (for details, see is a research scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, pursuing a doctorate in ‘The Role of Islam in Establishing Peace in the Contemporary World.’