By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Dialogue is inextricably linked with Islam. Islam is a Dawah mission. The Dawah mission in itself is a dialogue. Dawah mission requires interaction with people; it needs discussion. Dawah mission necessitates one to think about others. Without Dawah, you are a single person. But when you adopt Dawah as a mission, you get to meet many people. And when there are many people together, it naturally leads to dialogue.
The Quran has given a very practical method of dialogue—try to find a common ground between the two parties and make this a starting point for dialogue. This principle is give in the Quran in these words: “Say, ‘People of the Book, let us come to a word common to us that we shall worship none but God and that we shall associate no partner with Him and that none of us shall take others, besides God, for lords.’” (3:64)
In the early history of Islam, we also find a practical form of dialogue. This dialogue was held at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the mosque of Medina, representatives of three religions participated in a dialogue. These representatives were Muslims, Christians and Jews. This was, in fact, a trialogue.
Dialogue is not meant for conversion of people. Dialogue is a practical exercise. Every person lives with the belief that he is on the right path. The target of dialogue is to find ways of religious coexistence or religious tolerance. The target of dialogue is not to eliminate differences or to establish a society where there are no differences at all. Those who wish to eliminate differences are trying to establish a utopia. Utopia is possible only in the mind, and not in the real world. Differences are a part of nature. It is quite impossible to eliminate them.
The real target of dialogue is, or should be, mutual learning. Dialogue is also an important means to improve social relations between people of different faiths, to promote peace and harmony in society as a whole, and to better understand each other’s religions. Dialogue is also important for Dawah. Only through friendly relations with others can you explain to them the teachings of your religion. But the purpose is not conversion or to establish uniformity.
Once, somebody asked me, ‘Some people may claim that since Islam is a missionary religion, and since Muslims are commanded to engage in Dawah, Muslims cannot genuinely engage in dialogue. They contend that if Muslims believe that other religions are false or corrupted, they cannot live in harmony with people of other faiths. What is your response?’
My answer is that every human being has a mission. Even secular people have a mission. This is a human trait. It is also a human trait that every person believes that he is on the right path. Without this conviction, it is impossible to live in this world. It gives one a firm footing. Without this firm footing, no one can do anything with his full energy. But there is no contradiction between Dawah and dialogue. Dawah is also a dialogue, while adhering to a particular religion is one’s own choice. Conversion is not the right term for the purpose of dialogue.
Dialogue should not be meant for converting people to one’s own faith. Dialogue, if it is not debate, always leads to intellectual development. Also, it promotes the spirit of tolerance. This is the spirit of dialogue. The target of dialogue is not to change the world, but to have mutual learning. And, mutual learning is possible in every situation, even when there are differences.
From an Islamic perspective, to respect other religions does not mean the confirmation of their veracity or truthfulness. Respecting other religions is a matter of practical wisdom. It is a fact that uniformity is impossible in this world, both in the religious and the secular fields. In such a situation, the only possible option is to continue to carry out dialogue between different religions and at the same time to adopt the formula of mutual respect.
What is meant when we talk about the need to respect other religions? Does it mean respecting these religions, or respecting the right of their adherents to follow them or the respecting their adherents as fellow creatures of God?
Giving respect to others is not a religious issue. It is, rather, an ethical issue. Even within a single religion, there are numerous differences. Without tolerance or mutual respect, it is impossible to establish harmony even among people of a single faith. Thus, it is not only a question of inter-faith relations alone. It is a question that pertains even to intra-faith relations. In both these cases, equal respect must be offered to people holding different views.
The only thing that is required for true dialogue is getting rid of communal thinking. If you are free of communal or communally-supremacist thinking, then you are the right participant in a dialogue.