Islam and Inter-Faith Dialogue in Today’s World: Some Personal Reflections

Islam and Inter-Faith Dialogue in Today’s World: Some Personal Reflections

by Yoginder Sikand

(Paper presented at the Conference on Dialogue Between Islam and Oriental Religions, New Delhi, 21-22 February, 2010)

Ironically, perhaps, our increasingly inter-connected world is witness to a sharp escalation of conflicts defined by religion and ethnicity, just at a time when one would have expected these to decline. Although some of these conflicts are, at root, about economic and political resources and power, the role of religion in defining, and, indeed, escalating them and making them even more intractable cannot be denied. The need for dialogue between people who claim to adhere to different religions thus remains as urgent today as it was in the past.

This conference is devoted to exploring what is described as ‘dialogue between Islam and Oriental religions’. I have certain problems with the title of the seminar. The notion of Oriental religions is, to my mind, deeply problematic, but I will not dwell on that here. What is even more problematic is the notion of dialogue between religions. Surely, religions do not speak for themselves. In any dialogue such as this, it is not religions, but women and men, who claim to follow certain religions, who seek to dialogue with each other. Perhaps, then, the notion of ‘inter-community dialogue’ is more appropriate. But this is also not without its problems. Firstly, how does one know for sure—and this is quite impossible—that the women and men who engage in dialogue with each other in the name of their religions or communities are truly authorized representatives of their religions and communities? Related to this is the crucial, often ignored, point that each religion can be interpreted very diversely, and, with regard to inter-community or inter-faith relations, often in a mutually contradictory manner. Which interpretation of each religion, then, should be accepted as ‘authentic’, assuming that this is at all possible—which it clearly is not? All these points, then, are of crucial relevance to the issue that we have gathered here today to discuss.

This presentation is not intended to be an academic discussion about dialogue between Islam and so-called Oriental religions. I speak here on the basis of my own personal experience and background, and reflect, from this standpoint, on the possibilities of promoting better understandings between Muslims and people of other faiths in the South Asian religion, home to many of the so-called Oriental religions. My extended family consists of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, a few Christians and even distantly related, a Jew, many of them being only nominally religious or religious in a strictly communal or cultural sense, a few others seeing themselves as religious in some sense or the other, mainly in a very ritualistic sense.  I also speak as someone who has intimate friends from various religious communities. I speak, too, as someone who has worked on Indian Muslim, including Islamic, issues, for over two decades—mainly through research and writing. Finally, I speak as someone who, ideally, would prefer not to define himself by any religious or communal label.

We have come to understand each religion—and this is something that I find deeply problematic—as a closed system of beliefs, doctrines and practices, that is neatly bounded and set apart from, and, indeed, in contradistinction to, other religions that are defined in a similar fashion. Each religion, defined in this very narrow manner, makes its own claims to absolute truth, imagining itself to be the sole path to the Truth or God. Consequently, other religions are automatically seen and defined as lacking or deviant, or, worse still, as promising its adherents eternal punishment in the life after death. Given this way of understanding our religions, it is, quite frankly, impossible for any genuine dialogue to emerge.

What, then, is a possible way out of this impasse? I would argue that one possible solution to this vexing issue lies in a transformation of our ways of understanding religion itself. This would, firstly, entail focusing on the actual essence of religion—faith in God, which should also be translated into good deeds, in love, compassion and commitment to justice and peace that knows no communal boundaries. I think Islam, if understood in this expansive sense, actually stands for this understanding of religion, for it talks of how all the prophets of God, whom God has sent to every community in the world, taught this one primal deen or religion—the religion of submission to God. Few Hindus or Sikhs would have any problems with this understanding of Islam, and this basic principle can be taken as the underlying basis of inter-community dialogue between Muslims and others in the Indian context.

The trouble, however, arises when religion gets confused or conflated with a particular language and culture. According to the Quran, all the prophets of God taught the same primal deen or religion, called al-Islam in Arabic, and so it is but to be expected that this primal religion was named differently by the prophets prior to the Prophet Muhammad, who were sent, as the Quran says, to every community or nation across the world. Since, as the Quran says, the prophets preached to their people in their own language, it is but to be expected that they worshipped God in their own language, and that they also referred to God with different names other than Allah, which is a Semitic name. Viewed in this way, the insistence by religionists that God be referred to only by a particular name and worshipped only in a particular language, the language of a particular scripture associated with a particular prophet or religious leader, arguing that this alone is acceptable to God, not only makes inter-community and inter-religious dialogue impossible but also constitutes, to my mind, a profound affront to the conception of universalism beyond cultural and linguistic boundaries that is so integral to the Quranic vision of revelation.

This obsession with language—the notion that God can be approached, in worship, only in a particular language, and that God must be called only by a certain name or set of names that is associated with a particular language—serves to build high walls of difference and division between people of different communities while it also comes to define them. This is particularly striking in the Muslim case, but it has its parallels in, for instance, the Vedic tradition, where Sanskrit is elevated to the status of a divine language, the understanding being that God can only be worshipped in that language. The politics behind this linguistic chauvinism are obvious, but they need not detain us here. Suffice it to say, however, that as long as the belief continues to persist that a particular language has a special authority and that it alone can serve as the medium of worship, no genuine reconciliation between people of different faiths is at all possible. Let me suggest a small experiment to prove my point. Greet a Muslim maulvi with shanti, and an orthodox Hindu pandit with salam, and see them react in visible distaste, if not horror, although shanti and salam mean the same thing. Their reaction is simply a product of the virtual idolization of certain languages and linguistic terminology in the name of religion and communal identity.

In conventional understandings of religion, language, which is, after all, a human product, is linked to ritual. As sociologists have argued, religious rituals serve the function of binding a religious community together at the same time as they form boundary-markers, setting the group apart from other groups and giving it a separate, special identity in the eyes of its adherents. In this regard, the absence of ritualism in the Quran is particularly striking, especially when set against what could be called the obsession with ritualism in the Muslim tradition in the period after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, which continues till this day, almost paralleling the Vedic obsession with supposedly correct ways of performing elaborate rituals. Personally, I feel that obsession with ritualism is a compensation for the lack of genuine spirituality, and serves to deaden the latter, while building up huge walls of division with adherents other faiths. This is particularly so when, as in the Muslim case, it comes to be believed that only what are seen as correct forms of ritual action are acceptable forms of worship and devotion in God’s eyes, and that all other forms of expressing one’s love and devotion to God are false and deviant. Personally, as a student of Islam, I feel this stern ritualism among Muslims to be quite in contrast to the liberative iconoclastic approach of the Quran, where the notion of ‘correct’ ritual worship is almost absent. Sadly, the conventional Muslim understanding that only certain forms of ritual worship are acceptable to God, and that these rituals must be accompanied by verbal utterances only in a particular language—Arabic—not only robs Islam of its universalism and builds massive barriers between Muslims and people of other faiths, but also, ironically, further reinforces endemic intra-Muslim sectarianism, with each sect claiming to be the only truly Muslim group on the grounds that its particular form of ritual worship, and not that of the others, is what is acceptable to God. It is as if God understands just one religion and accepts just one set of rituals of communing with Him. This is a form of virtual idolatory which is totally absent in the Quran.

A third major barrier in promoting genuine reconciliation between people of different faiths is the tendency to absolutise the key religious figures in their religious traditions. More often than not, inter-religious polemics centre on conflicting claims about the personalities of these religious figures—Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and so on.  These figures, and not God that is beyond them, come to define each religious community, and the understanding emerges that it is only by following them that one can commune with God. Naturally, this way of understanding religion—centred on religious figures, rather than God—further cements communitarian divisions. This is something that people genuinely committed to inter-community dialogue must seriously consider. If these figures, as they probably saw it themselves, were simply a means, an instrument to call people to God and goodness, the tendency to elevate them to to almost deify them can easily be seen as an inversion of their actual message.

A fourth barrier in promoting genuine dialogue between people who see themselves as following different religions is the conventional notion of ‘religious community’. Too often, conflicts for communal supremacy are conflated with religion, and these conflicts are presented as religious conflicts. If religion is understood in an expansive sense, as faith in and devotion to God, which is reflected in good deeds, our notion of what constitutes a truly religious community—true ‘Muslims’ or ‘submitters’, to use an Arabic word—undergoes a corresponding transformation. It is not for communal interests, or asabiyya in Arabic, which is really a form of tribalism, that we should struggle, but for goodness, for justice, for genuine peace and compassion and love, transcending conventional communal boundaries. And all those men and women committed to this agenda come to be seen as members of a single God-inspired community of ‘Muslims’, to use an Arabic word, or, ‘Sikhs’, to use a Punjabi term, or ‘Sanatanis’, in Sanskrit. 

These are simply stray thoughts about the very real difficulties in promoting dialogue between people of different faiths. It is not that what I am saying is novel at all. In the Indian context, a whole galaxy of saints, who defined themselves neither as Hindus nor Muslims, said quite the same thing, preaching a form of ethical monotheism that readily appealed to people of different castes and communities, thus engaging in a very empowering form of dialogue. Based on my own reading of the Quran, I think what they were arguing for was not at all different from that for which the Prophet Muhammad, and, indeed, all the prophets of God who preceded him, preached. Consider, for instance, this appeal of Guru Nanak, also called Baba Nanak Shah by his Muslim disciples, where he berated the meaninglessness of empty ritualism and the belief that only certain forms of ritual worship, conducted only in a particular language, were acceptable to God. This, Nanak Sahib suggests, is a form of idolatry that only divides communities and distances those who engage in it from God. To those who call themselves ‘Muslims’, Baba Nanak says:

It is difficult to be called a Muslim; if one is truly a Muslim, then he may be called one.

First, let him savor the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let his pride of his possessions be scraped away.

Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Muhammad, let him put aside the delusion of death and life.

As he submits to God’s Will, and surrenders to the Creator, he is rid of selfishness and conceit.

And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim.

Allah is hidden in every heart; reflect upon this in your mind. The One Lord is within both Hindu and Muslim;
Be kind and compassionate to me, O Creator Lord. Bless me with devotion and meditation, O Lord Creator. Says Nanak, the Guru has rid me of doubt.
The Muslim God Allah and the Hindu God Parbrahm are one and the same.

To be Muslim is to be kind-hearted, and wash away pollution from within the heart. He does not even approach worldly pleasures; he is pure, like flowers, silk, ghee and the deer-skin.

One who is blessed with the mercy and compassion of the Merciful Lord, is the manliest man among men. He alone is a Shaykh, a preacher, a Haji, and he alone is God’s slave, who is blessed with God’s Grace.

Elsewhere, he says:

Let mercy be your mosque, faith in God your prayer-mat, and earning an honest living your Quran.

Turning away your face from five thieves (lust, anger, greed, worldly attachment and ego) is the real circumcision, and having a good conduct is the real fast.
Have a high moral character as your Ka‘aba, truth as your spiritual guide, and good deeds your prayer and chant.

Let your rosary be that which is pleasing to his will. Says Nanak, God shall preserve the honor of such a Muslim.

To the Hindus, Baba Nanak has quite the same message—to go beyond ritualism and to realize the oneness of God, whose light is ever-present in every particle of the universe, in Hindus and in Muslims alike:

O brother, you worship gods and goddesses. What can you ask of them and what can they give to you?

O brother, the stones/idols you wash with water sink in water (in other words how could these stones help you cross the ocean of worldly temptations.

Personally, although not all of you would, of course, agree with me, I find succor and intellectual and emotional satisfaction in this approach to understanding religion, liberating it from obsession with ritualism and communalism, indicating that the only real way to reconciliation between human beings is through faith in the one God, Creator of all, which is reflected in goodness, love and compassion towards all His creatures. This, for me, is the only way to genuine dialogue and reconciliation.