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Understanding Islam in the Context of Interfaith Harmony

By Waris Mazhari

25 January 2017

We live at a time of unprecedented global interconnectedness. Never before in the entire history of humankind have people of different faith communities, cultures, countries and ethnicities been in such close contact all across the globe as today. This situation provides us wonderful possibilities to learn and benefit from each other and to work together for our own good and for the collective good of all. Much of this goodness is, in fact, being manifested today, at various levels and in different ways. The rich possibilities for promoting this goodness are being availed of by those individuals and communities who have developed the skill of harmoniously and creatively relating with people who think, believe and behave differently from them.

At the same time, this intense closeness that different peoples across the world are now experiencing has had another impact. Individuals and communities who have not developed the skills for relating with people who think, believe and behave differently from them may find the situation of being in close contact with others intimidating. They may react to this predicament with hate, resentment, aggression and even war. And with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that can literally wipe off all traces of life from this planet, this is no mere theoretical issue.

Today, people—individuals as well as entire communities—are faced with the urgent task of learning to live harmoniously with those who think, believe and behave differently from them, whom they now live with as co-members of the ‘global village’.  Our common survival demands this. It is not something that we can choose to ignore if we wish to continue to inhabit this planet.

In this context, it has become absolutely imperative for different faith communities to learn to live harmoniously with each other. Given the fact that most countries today are now religiously plural and that, owing to the reach of almost instant communications, the actions of members of one community in one corner of the world can have a major impact on inter-community relations globally, it is simply unavoidable for faith communities to reach out to each other for the common good of all. For this purpose, different faith communities need to highlight teachings in their own religious traditions that accept and honour each other and recognize the goodness in other faith traditions and their adherents. This is the only way for their followers to develop positive understandings of others so that they learn that to live in harmony with people of other faiths is something that is mandated in their own religion and is not a deviation from it. This task of understanding, from within each religious tradition, religious pluralism as an asset, rather than as a problem, is something that people of faith need to take very seriously, for the collective good, indeed survival, of humankind hinges critically on it.

No religion is understood in a homogenous or singular way. Each religion has, throughout its history, been understood diversely by those who claim to follow it. This interpretive diversity includes diverse understandings about the status and worth of other faiths and their adherentsas well as of other interpretations of the same faith and those who claim to follow them. Some such understandings may be positive. There are others that are heavily negative, in which other faiths as well as other interpretations of the same faith and their adherents are seen as deviant or even worse, and as something to be combated. People who uphold such understandings of their religion see religious plurality as a problem, rather than as an asset.

Negative approaches of the religious ‘other’ (including of people and groups who claim to follow the same faith but interpret it differently) are today at the root of conflict in the name of religion that has assumed demonic proportions in many parts of the world. This is definitely the case among a sizeable section of Muslims. Misusing the concept of jihad and posing as ‘champions’ of Islam, Muslim extremist groups have unleashed horrific violence against those who think, believe and behave differently from them—including people of other faiths as well as fellow Muslims. This hate and violence in the name of Islam for both the ‘external other’ and the ‘internal other’ is now one of the gravest threats facing the whole of humankind.  If we wish to inhabit a world where people of different beliefs can live together in peace and harmony and work together for the greater glory of God and for the benefit of all, this deep-rooted resentment and intolerance—of Muslims who think and believe differently as well as people of other faiths—simply has to be tackled and overcome. In this task, Muslims themselves have, of course, a principle role to play.

Some Muslims may argue that the ongoing terrorism in the name of Islam by some Muslim groups is a reaction to the actions of others. My understanding is different. Just as these Muslims blame the acts of others for their own violence against them, others blame Muslims for their violence against Muslims. Clearly, this blame-game can get us nowhere at all.  Muslims must recognize that, as the saying goes, it takes two hands to clap, and, accordingly, must admit the role of extremist and intolerant interpretations of Islam and their adherents in fomenting hate, violence and also what is called ‘Islamophobia’ on a very large scale. They must heed this commandment of the Quran (5:8):

Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.'

Along with this, they must also recognize that although it takes two hands to clap, it suffices for just a single hand extended in friendship to build bridges of understanding and harmony between individuals and communities. Let Muslims take the initiative of extending that hand, unilaterally if need be—for their own good, for the good of the image of Islam and for the good of the whole of humankind. They must know that this is something that is mandated by Islam itself.

Since literalist, hate-driven, exclusivist, and supremacist misinterpretations of Islam are at the very root of the ongoing conflict and violence involving Muslims in many parts of the world, efforts to promote peace and harmony in Muslim societies and across the world as such simply cannot avoid the indispensable task of articulating and promoting alternate, authentic understandings of Islam that respect religious pluralism and accept and honour people of other  faiths as well as Muslims who understand their faith differently. Overcoming extremism in the name of Islam also requires a sustained effort to show that such extremism actually is a deviation from Islam and that it has no sanction in it, contrary to what extremist Muslim ideologues insist.

If we are to promote peace and put an end to the hate and violence in the name of Islam that has become such a major challenge today, this ideological task is absolutely necessary. No amount of political change or economic ‘development’ or military engagement, necessary though these may be, can substitute for this task. Extremist Muslim groups seek support among Muslims for their hate-driven violence against people of other faiths and against other Muslims by claiming that their activities are mandated by their particular interpretation of Islam. Hence, the only way they can be denied this support is by convincing Muslims that the extremists’ interpretation of Islam actually has no sanction whatsoever in Islam and is, in fact, a complete deviation from it. This is crucial if Muslims are to be saved from falling prey to the appeals of radicals. A fundamental-change in the Muslim mindset, especially on the issue of inter-community, inter-religious and inter-sectarian relations, is thus called for.

For Muslims to accept peace and harmony as guiding principles in their relations with others, both people of other faiths and Muslims who understand Islam differently from how they do, they must be convinced that these principles are rooted in Islam and are not alien to it. This calls for Muslim scholars to work on highlighting Islamic teachings about peace and interfaith and inter-sectarian dialogue, harmony and understanding among the Muslim populace particularly, as well as among others.

For Muslims to become a force for peace and goodness in the world, they simply have to rethink several deep-rooted traditional views regarding relations between Muslims of different schools of thought and between Muslims and people of other faiths, engage in practical efforts to promote intra-Muslim and inter-faith dialogue, understanding and harmony, and recover and highlight, including through practical efforts, the message of peace that is basic to the Quran and that exemplified the life of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the only way that people can be weaned away or saved from violent, hate-driven discourses in the name of Islam that have managed to garner a sizeable number of supporters. This is also necessary for Muslims to recover and live by the true teachings of their faith. That this is also necessary for global peace goes without saying.


Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, presently teaches at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.