SPIRITUALITY: What is the Contribution of Religions Toward Peace?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

Posted Dec 19, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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What is the Contribution of Religions Toward Peace?

Religions and Cultures in Dialogue


Religion is a powerful tool. Correctly used, it has led to the vision of God. But when usurped by violent men, religion has proven extremely effective in rousing the masses to violence and aggression.

For those souls who have sought and found union in the vision of God, religions are but a diversity of creeds and practices that are merely ways to the One Goal, the vision of God. We who have grasped this truth recognize that everything is a veil hiding the Essential, and therefore seek to peel away those veils that hide the path to knowledge of the sole true Reality. We recognize that all religions have the same relative value with respect to the high goal to be reached, and the same lack of value if they fail to call forth the love of God. This alone is the uniform standard of value in the assessment of religions. Our voices, raised together to proclaim the recognition of the unity of God, serve to bring mankind together, while those voices that focus on the differences of our laws cause division and loss.

The great 13th century Muslim poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi (1207-1273) expressed this when he wrote in one of his poems: The lovers of ritual are one group, and those whose hearts and souls are aglow with love of God are another.

We can classify humanity in a variety of different ways. For example, we can divide humanity into ethnic or language groups, and obtain insights descriptive of each ethnic or language group that are helpful in furthering our understandings of each other. But we can also choose to divide humanity into two groupings by gender affiliation, and come to the insight that men and women do have traits unique to their gender that cut across the other affiliations of ethnicity and culture. Different analyses introduce different algorithms, so by this powerful simplicity we recognize that while we have a need to inform Europeans and Asians on how they differ, we have an equal need to inform men within both the European and Asian traditions that while they are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Analogously, and extending Rumi’s quote above, we would therefore like to propose that from the spiritual and ethical point of view, there are only two groups of religionists:

1. Those who have seen the vision of God, and they are one group regardless of their nominal religious affiliation, and
2. Those who are exclusive, militant and hard-line in their religious interpretation; they too are also one group, regardless of their nominal religious affiliation.

This simple insight brings us to a conclusion that is startling to many:

- We urgently need to establish discourse and dialogue not only at an interfaith level, but also at an intra-faith level, between those who have different perspectives and interpretations within the same religious tradition.

Because our shared and collective historical experience has highlighted just how deeply religious convictions can either support or distort the core values of our common living, the challenge we have as we enter the 21st century is, how can religions contribute to establishing global peace?

Starting from the theme that love of God requires love of our fellow man, peace requires an intensive dialogue between partisans holding opposing beliefs. This is the greatest contribution that religions can now make towards forging peace. In fact, by working and dialoging together, both those of us who do - and those who do not - subscribe to a religion, must aspire to develop a full set of theological and secular justifications for a world vision based on peace. Our traditions and sacred texts can add authority and persuasiveness to our aspiration. But the natural questions that the skeptics ask is, why dialogue, what does dialogue mean, and what does it accomplish?

We wish to offer the following suggestions as to how religions in dialogue can and do contribute to improving the human condition:

Dialogue among people of faith, and across differences, opens our hearts to one another as human beings, reveals what is common among us, and deepens our quests for enduring truth. This is so because:

- The holy can speak to us through the “other;” we may learn something about what is sacred from those different from ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of what our respective faiths require of us. In the process, we acknowledge that others may in fact have a grasp of truth that we do not. (For example, the Muslims learned a lot from the non-Muslim communities among whom they lived, and Jewish scholars like Maimonides and Ibn Paqoda applied principles learned from their Sufi Muslim contemporaries such as al-Ghazali.)

- Dialogue between the religions offers the opportunity for uncovering the common ground of shared values and goals that resonate in each of our faiths, even as we clarify real differences. Dialogue within a religion offers the opportunity for its adherents to be amazed at real differences that can arise from shared theology and ritual (orthodoxy and orthopraxy).

- Dialogue forges personal bonds and relationships of trust that carry the potential to strengthen the larger social fabric and make possible cooperative efforts where concerns and priorities overlap.

As we, the representatives of religion, commit to speaking out in our faith-filled languages in the public arena about peace and make our voices heard by our fellow citizens, we contribute to an understanding and construction of a global notion of the common good.

Our religions are unique sources of both public values - such as compassion and justice - and the moral energy and drive needed for the practice of these values in our common living and building towards peace.

Speaking in the public arena as people of faith entails certain very specific challenges, and sometimes dangers, yet with each challenge we overcome, we will have made a significant contribution. Among these challenges are:

- To make our language and images intelligible both outside and within our own religious context. Many of us are trained to speak to those within our cultural and religious disciplines, and find ourselves quite lost when trying to communicate our religious ideals to those outside its pale. As Muslims we are often asked by non-Muslims why Islam is perceived as a faith of violence, when its very name means peace and surrender to the will of God.

- To be careful in the way we employ our certitudes, knowing that ours are voices among many in the global arena, often not shared by others in this arena. And yet we must not be shy to give public voice to the religious rationales underlying our statements and policy recommendations. In a pluralistic society, public understanding and trust is increased by openness and clarity concerning the theology and sources of authority underlying our positions. (A specific example: Islam is a religion that takes a clear stance regarding those who reject God, and the Muslim position is clear: that whoever rejects God will have no share in the afterlife. Yet we are commanded by the same scripture to honor this person’s right to live this life in accordance with his or her beliefs. “To you your religion, and to me mine,” the Qur’an asserts (109:6), and again “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) And with those within our Islamic faith, we have a different battle to wage: first, to urge them to apply these Qur’anic principles enunciating freedom of religion in their behavior. And second, to inform and educate them on how the Qur’an unequivocally asserts that “those who believe, and the Jews, Christians, and Sabians (thus implying faiths other than Islam), whoever believes in God and (his or her accountability for actions done in this life, will on) the Last Day have their reward with their Lord, will have nothing to fear or be unhappy about.” (2:62) They will be saved.

Can there be a more powerful rationale for dialogue?

For those who have experienced the trials of dialogue, we know it is hard work. It is an intentional form of conversation, requiring a commitment on both sides to a way of communicating and being together that affirms the humanity of all present, embodies our understandings of what our faith traditions expect of people in community, and enhances the potential for learning, discernment and understanding. Dialogue requires that we come to this conversation with an honest intention to understand and be understood, and with a willingness to listen to different views without requiring others to convert to our point of view.

- Dialogue starts by agreeing on “how to disagree,” and identifying the theological principles for disagreement within dialogue that embody respect for the humanity of all participants. By validating forums of dialogue, we foster and encourage its fruits that have in the past enriched our collective heritage as humans.

- Dialogue is not fundamentally a debate, nor is it a discussion necessarily aimed at resolving the core conflict. It involves seeking points of genuine overlap, the common ground, and requires listening fully to the other, suspending the need to defend or react, and listening for points of connection. Dialogue opens the possibility that misunderstanding can be an opportunity for learning rather than an occasion for offense.

- Dialogue requires virtues that need enhancement in our current global social exchanges; a commitment to respectful speech and behavior, attention to how the language we use is understood by others, and affects others; and honesty about how other’s language affect us. It requires engaging with what people actually mean when they speak, and not so much with what the listener thinks is meant or intended. It calls for surfacing and acknowledging untested assumptions and preconceptions, and being willing to ask and answer genuine questions.

Our experience has demonstrated to us the value and integrity of dialogue among faith-based partisans holding opposing beliefs on various matters of public importance. Our purpose here at this conference is to share the convictions we arrive at together and spur similar dialogues. Though it may be beyond the scope of our discussions to develop a full set of theological and secular justifications for our conclusions, the qualifications for doing so amply exist among us here. There is no reason for us not to believe that we will in our conversations begin to find them. As we said earlier, we hope that theologians from the range of faiths we represent will take up this important task, and add authority and persuasiveness by building upon the teachings of our traditions and sacred texts.

Let us conclude with a poem by Muhyi’d-Din Ibn al`Arabi, born in this Iberian peninsula in the Andalusian town of Murcia in 1165AD (d. 1240). He is regarded by some to have been the Greatest Sufi Master (ash-Shaykh al-Akbar). What is sweet about this poem is that he expresses his shift from one of the groups Rumi talks of in the above quote to the other, thereby fueling our hope that we too can precipitate such changes in humanity at large:

There was a time when I took it amiss in my companion if his religion was not near to mine;
But now my heart takes on every form; it is a pasture for gazelles, a monastery for monks,
A temple of idols and a Ka`ba for pilgrims, the tables of the Torah and the holy book of the Qur’an.
Love is my religion, and whichever way its riding beasts turn, that way lies my religion and belief.


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