By S Iftikhar Murshed
April 17, 2012
Seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was convinced that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.” It is said that the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists, and this explains the wars of religion in previous centuries, as much as it does the creed of Al-Qaeda in the contemporary era or the current sectarian nightmare in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Sadly, it is irrefutable that the three major monotheistic religions of the world have been primarily responsible for most of the faith-based violence through history. Since the 1960s, however, there has been an effort, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church, to revisit the past, acknowledge previous mistakes and make amends.
A similar exercise was undertaken by Muslim theologians and resulted in the historic Mardin Conference in March 2010. There has also been an endeavour since 2005 to set in motion a dialogue process between Jewish and Muslim scholars in the United States. The most remarkable of these diverse initiatives has been that of the Vatican.
Pursuant to the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962-December 8, 1965), the Office for Non-Christian Affairs at the Vatican issued a publication titled Orientation for a Dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The document exhorted Christians to shun the “outdated image, inherited from the past, or distorted by prejudice and slander” of Islam. It appealed to the followers of the Church to “recognise the past injustice towards the Muslims for which the West, with its Christian education, is to blame.”
The manuscript was also severely critical of preconceived notions Christians have about Muslim fatalism, the Sharia, and fanaticism. While stressing the unity of God, it recalled how pleasantly surprised the Muslim audience at Cairo’s Al= Azhar University was when Cardinal Franz Koenig (1905-2004), the archbishop of Vienna, emphasised this unity in a speech at the Great Mosque in March 1969.
The Second Vatican Council, known also as Vatican II, was convened by Pope John XXIII to harmonise relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. It is significant that among those who participated in the three-year-long colloquium, four were to become pontiffs. Thus, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini succeeded Pope John XXIII as Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani was to become Pope Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyla was the future Pope John Paul II; and Father Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, the theological consultant at the council, is the incumbent Pope Benedict XVI.
Vatican II spurred a series of significant contacts between the Roman Catholic Curia and Islam in an effort to foster interfaith harmony. Thus in April 1974, Cardinal Pignedoli, president of the Vatican Office of Non-Christian Affairs visited Saudi Arabia and conveyed a message from Pope Paul VI who was “moved by a profound belief in the unification of the Islamic and Christian worlds in the worship of a single God...”
This was reciprocated six months later by a visit to the Holy See of the Grand Ulema of Saudi Arabia. The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, in its October 26, 1974, issue reported the event in detail. The Grand Ulema were subsequently received by the Ecumenical Council of Churches of Geneva and by the “Lord Bishop of Strasbourg” who invited them to offer their midday prayers in his cathedral.
The Bishop of Strasbourg was probably not even aware that more than one thousand four hundred years back it was Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who was the first person in recorded history to display such broad-minded magnanimity. The scholar and biographer Ibn Saad (784-845) recounted in his Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir that when a delegation of Christians from Najran called on the Holy Prophet in Medina a few months before his death, he offered them his mosque for prayers in accordance with their own beliefs and rituals.
The discussions between the Najran Christians and the Muslims of Medina centred on the doctrinal commonalities and differences between the two religions. This was history’s first interfaith dialogue and was completely in accord with the Quranic injunction: “And do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner-unless it be such of them as are bent on evildoing-and say: ‘We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we (all) surrender ourselves.’ “ (Quran, 29:46.)
The positive response to the Vatican II initiative by the Grand Ulema of Saudi Arabia and the scholars of Al Azhar were unfortunately overtaken by subsequent events. The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan traumatised the world. But it was the successful Mujahideen resistance supported by the West that not only resulted in the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall but also gave birth to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. The Taliban movement emerged from a remote village near Kandahar in August 1994 and by September 1996 captured two-thirds of Afghanistan, including Kabul.
The hope for interfaith harmony generated by Vatican II faded and was replaced in the 1990s by Samuel P Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilisations which envisaged that people’s cultural and religious identities, particularly the differences between Islam and the Christian West, will be the main cause for conflict in the post-Cold War world.
In response then Iranian president Mohammad Khatami advanced the idea of Dialogue among Civilisations. The proposal was accepted by the United Nations, which designated the year 2001 for this purpose. But a few months later 9/11 occurred and it seemed that Huntington’s theory was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But despite this, the Alliance of Civilisations initiative was proposed at the 60th UN General Assembly session in 2005 by the Spanish president, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, and was co-sponsored by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. This concept was built around the galvanisation of collective action to combat extremism, demolish cultural barriers primarily between the West and the Muslim world and reduce interfaith polarisation and tensions.
A parallel effort for the advancement of understanding between Muslims and Jews was launched in 2005 by Pakistan’s Dr Akbar Ahmad, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, and Professor Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl who was beheaded in Karachi in 2002 by Al-Qaeda. This initiative is based on the belief that reconciliation between the two faiths can be achieved through a frank dialogue ranging from theological issues, historical perceptions to current events.
By far the most important recent initiative for the advancement of global peace and harmony was taken by Muslim academics, scholars and theologians during their meeting at the Turkish resort of Mardin on March 27-28, 2010. The delegate from Saudi Arabia laid bare the textual distortion of the Mardin fatwa (decree) of Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) which Al-Qaeda has exploited to justify terrorism in the guise of religion.
The New Mardin Declaration adopted by the conference urged the faithful to live up to Islam’s high moral and ethical values. It condemned in the strongest terms the vigilantism of radicals and appealed to all Muslims to foster global peace and conviviality.
But true progress towards interfaith harmony cannot be made unless there is self-criticism and a willingness to atone for and learn from past follies, as demonstrated by Vatican II. This was also recognised by President Richard Nixon, who in his book Beyond Peace, published posthumously in 1994, had the courage to admit with stunning honesty that conflict between the West and Islam was not necessarily inevitable but could become a self-fulfilling prophesy if the West continued to be indifferent to conflicts in which Muslims were the victims.
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.
Source: The News, Islamabad