Islam and Inter-Religious Dialogue
By Maulvi Syed Nikhat Husain Nadwi
(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)
In today’s world, one of the most crucial issues that we are faced with is the urgent need for different communities and civilizations to understand each other and to improve and strengthen their mutual relations. Modern developments have shrunk the world into a global village. Consequently, countries and communities are now heavily inter-dependent in order to sustain their lives. Different communities are now rapidly influencing each other at the social, economic, cultural and political levels. Increasingly, communities are influenced by each other’s ways of life, customs, practices and beliefs, not hesitating to adopt those that they find useful or good. Gradually, this is moving in the direction of a composite culture.
In this context, inter-cultural dialogue assumes a particular urgency. This is especially the case in a country where numerous cultural groups live together, where it is imperative that they must learn to respect each other’s rights, customs, mores and traditions. In the absence of this, particularly if one culture seeks to dominate or impose itself on others, such a society will inevitably move towards conflict and violence. This is why it is so necessary to seek to promote strong bonds of solidarity, based on dialogue, between people of different cultures and religions. This is needed not just for the proper evolution of these cultures and so that can learn from each other, but also for ensuring global peace and security. When cultures learn to not just tolerate each other but also to work together with others for their mutual advancement, they become supports of each other and a means for peace, rather than conflict. In this way, they can translate into vehicles for the promotion of mutually beneficial relations at all levels—cultural, social, political and economic.
Some people argue that each culture should be allowed to grow on its own, in isolation from others. This suggestion is simply unworkable, because if a culture restricts and cocoons itself in this manner its rapid death is inevitable. In today’s world, no culture can even conceive of, leave alone claim to, exist isolated from other cultures because every cultural group’s very existence is now so heavily dependent on other groups. Global progress, peace and welfare are a common need and a shared aim of all the communities of the world, without which each community cannot properly prosper.
Some other people are of the view that each culture should be given full freedom to expand, even though this might mean that one particular culture finally dominates the entire world. Yet, this is a sure recipe for conflict. The same result would follow from another approach to inter-cultural relations that is rooted in a vision of cultural hegemony that refuses to tolerate the existence of other cultures and seeks to wipe them out or else subjugate them. Obviously, this is a totally unrealistic approach. It is also a negation of a basic message of all Divinely-revealed religions, according to which all human beings are made of the same basic substance and are offspring of the same primal parents, and that, till the Day of Judgment, all human beings will remain tied to each other through their shared humanity. This bond of humanity that knits together all people is the primary, most basic and strongest of all relations.
In a plural society, where people of different religions, ethnicities, language groups and cultures live together, every group must be given equal rights and the same opportunities to progress. This can only be ensured and sustained through continuous inter-community dialogue. In my view, the only way to prevent inter-cultural or inter-religious conflict, as well as to promote harmonious inter-community relations in a plural society and at the global level, is serious dialogue that aims at improving relations between different communities so that they jointly work for establishing peace.
The point then arises as to what the bases of such dialogue should be. Should dialogue concern itself simply with the niceties of the philosophies of different cultural groups? Should dialogue remain restricted only to the theological level? Should dialogue be limited simply to preaching about peaceful coexistence? Or, should it, as I believe, go beyond this to focus particularly on the various social and other such problems and issues that different cultural groups face in common? Until inter-cultural dialogue takes up these common problems as well as issues of common interest as its bases, it will remain very superficial. This is why I believe that the first stage in inter-cultural dialogue is for members of different cultural communities to identify issues of common concern as well as common interest, particularly those problems that are a hurdle to better relations between various communities. The second step is to evolve means to address these issues through peaceful and sustained dialogue. But this must be carried out in a spirit of mutual respect, for no dialogue can succeed if it involves abusing or debasing the religious feelings and beliefs of other communities.
(This is a translation of extracts from Maulvi Nadwi’s Urdu booklet, ‘Muzakirat Ki Zarurat’ (‘The Need For Dialogue’ (New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 2005).
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore