The Heart of Tolerance:  The Prophetic Paradigm Towards Inter-Religious Dialogue

Azam Nizamuddin, Esq.

Posted Apr 1, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Heart of Tolerance:  The Prophetic Paradigm Towards Inter-Religious Dialogue

By Azam Nizamuddin, Esq.

The dramatic rise of religion in public discourse recently has given the global community pause to reflect on what role religion will play in modernity.  As communities continue to compete in the new process of globalization, communication, cooperation, and conflict will inevitably increase.  As governments across the globe divert billions of dollars into areas of security, terrorism and war, little effort and money is being used to explore the possibility of peace and reconciliation.  The recent Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq demonstrates that notions of peace and stability are as difficult to maintain as they were in 1941. 

However, the last twenty years have witnessed the rise of religion and the use of religious symbols and rhetoric in various political discourses as well as in   regional conflict.  The adherents of religion view this recent phenomenon as a harbinger of divine will, a propitious sign from the Al-Mighty.  Critics, however view this development with alarm and concern.  With the rise of extreme nationalism as well as religious assertiveness demonstrated by the Christian Coalition in America, to Hizbut Tehreer in Europe, the Likud Party in the 80s in Israel and of course the Hindutva movement in India, religious ideology, religious rhetoric, and religious identity continue to play major roles within local communities and globally.

The noted political scientist, Samuel Huntington has famously declared that the Clash of Civilizations is inevitable. Just as a boxing promoter markets a boxing match by over-emphasizing the personal animosity between the opponents,  intellectuals such as Huntington put forth a Manichean worldview pitting Europe and North America (deemed the West by him) versus the Muslim world, and to a lesser extent Chinese civilization.  This thesis appears to have gained momentum in the circles of American policy makers and the Pentagon, particularly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001. While many in the academic community dismissed Huntington’s thesis as too militant, his views seem to resonate in the recent adoption of the “Preemptive War theory as articulated by neo-conservative scholars such as Robert Kagan, who ironically enough, holds a post at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.  The justification of the Preemptive War theory has now become doctrine in the hands of the Bush administration.  Despite Huntington’s tenuous arguments, however, there is no question that religious conflict will continue to play a major role in the modern world.

This grim reality presents a challenge for those of us who teach, study, and observe religion in its various manifestations. Indeed, the rise of religion in the political arena is both exciting, but also of concern.  The intersection of religion in politics and the politics of religion is not new.  From the development of the Protestant Reformation, on through the European enlightenment, and after the supposed death of God as forcefully put forth by Nietzsche, religion in its multifaceted forms appears to be making a come back both in terms of its public appearance but also in government policy. 

While religion in its spiritual formulation has always existed, a new form of religious identity appears to be making a more prominent appearance on the global stage.  This can be seen in the support for faith-based social services supported by the Bush Administration, or in the banning of Muslim headscarves in France, the rise of militancy on the Afghan/Pakistan border regions, or the revisionist history being promulgated in Indian educational textbooks by members of the Hindutva movement.

Given these salient religious developments, those of us involved in inter-religious dialogue must address the question of how we can maintain our unique religious tradition, in a multi-religious world.  Further, how can we pursue our spiritual, social, and cultural aspirations without denigrating others?  Indeed, can a religious community develop its future or fulfill a religious destiny without eliminating or persecuting another religious community.  Can Serbia build a successful nation state without resorting to historical stereotypes and move beyond anachronistic religious/ethnic hostility? Can Hindu Nationalists further develop the largest democracy in the world without destroying any more mosques or righting the perceived wrongs of the past?  Can Muslim puritans develop a thriving religious community without imposing a religious legal code or a political caliphate on people of other faiths? 

While policy makers and states will continue to utilize religious ideology and symbolism to aggrandize their political agendas, those of us who have been involved in inter-religious dialogue must create new strategies to further develop dialogue and cooperation. 

Islam’s Theology of Pluralism

Each one of us must look to our own faith tradition to develop new strategies for formulating a public discourse on religion.  For people of various religious traditions, there must be a framework where all can feel comfortable discussing each other’s faith experiences.  Clearly, issues such as sectarian differences, eschatology, the transmigration of the soul, legal justice, and social structures, are simply too palpably close to home to simply ignore or broom under the carpet.

For Muslims, these concerns will inevitably involve the interpretation and use of sacred texts.  From the Islamic perspective, this means the Quran and Hadith or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.  Inevitably, this involves the recognition and realization that human beings consist of not only matter, but also of a spiritual dimension which must be properly developed in order to promote a civilized, tolerant, and peaceful worldview.  If we ignore the spiritual and beautiful aspect of our creation, then we risk losing the importance of civility within ourselves and the beauty of others. 

From the Islamic perspective, God created human beings in his own image.  After a brief period in the Divine presence or paradise, human beings were separated from God.  The Quran says that human beings were created in a very high and pure state, but that then they were reduced to the low, animal-like state.  Having fallen from the state of the best stature, human beings cannot regain the former state save through the Grace of God. 

Even though human beings were separated from the Divine presence, they still possess the Divine qualities which separates them from the animals.  Some thinkers have referred to this as the spirit, the intellect or even the heart, the seat of the knowledge of God.

The aim of Islamic theology and law is to remind human beings who they really are, which means that they are awakened from their dream which they refer to as their ordinary life, confining the soul to the prison of the ego.

Jalaluddin Rumi, the Muslim jurist and poet reminds us of this reality in an interesting metaphor:

Man’s situation is like this: an angel’s wing was brought and tied to a donkey’s tail so that the donkey perchance might also become an angel, thanks to the radiance of the angel’s company.

For Rumi, beauty is an essential component of religion and faith.  When aesthetic value has little or no place in religious observance and practice, then the ugliness of religion fills the void.  Unfortunately, this leads human beings to forget the high rank to which they are assigned. They forget their spiritual dimension which allows them to be close to God. They forget that being close to God means being God’s friend or khalilullah, the name given to Abraham, the spiritual source for many monotheistic traditions. 

Since the late 1990’s, the poet Jalaluddin Rumi became the most read poet in the United States.  Much of his writings were made available to large American audiences by well constructed and easy to read translations of Rumi’s poetry by able scholars.  Indeed, the Pakistani pop group Janoon even referenced Rumi as inspiration for much of its sufi sounds with tolerance and love themes. 

Despite the popularity of Rumi in the West, however, what is often overlooked is that the belief, writings, and doctrines of Rumi stem from his focus on emulating the character and personality of the Prophet Muhammad.  It wasn’t that Rumi found themes of tolerance, love, compassion because he was removed from Islamic orthodoxy or practice.  To the contrary, these themes, that people outside of Islam so admire and identify about Rumi (love, tolerance, and compassion), stem directly from Rumi’s attempts to incorporate the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad into his own life and teachings.  For example, several well known Prophetic traditions state:

Sahih Muslim - Book 47, Number 47.1.8:
Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I was sent to perfect good character.”

Sahih Muslim - Book 47, Number 47.1.7:
Yahya related to me from Malik that Yahya ibn Said said that he heard Said ibn al-Musayyab say, “Shall I tell you what is better than much prayer and sadaqa?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Mending discord. And beware of hatred - it strips you (of your deen).”

Sahih Muslim - Book 47, Number 47.4.16:
Yahya related to me from Malik from Ata ibn Abi Muslim that Abdullah al-Khurasani said, “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Shake hands and rancor will disappear. Give presents to each other and love each other and enmity will disappear.’ ”

The above-referenced traditions form the foundation of Islamic ethics and character development, also known as akhlaq.  In Islam, the prophetic voice is not limited to the Seventh century life of the Prophet Muhammad.  Prior to Muhammad, there were many prophets who established norms of behavior and practice.  For example, the life of the Prophet Abraham offers a rich example for our purposes this evening. By focusing on the character of Abraham, we can all appreciate the many fascinating aspects of his life.  Worth particular attention for our purposes is the story of Abraham challenging his father’s idolatry.  (See Surah Sha` ra, 26:69-92 ; and Surah Maryam, 19:41-50).

From the Quran’s depiction of the early life of Abraham, the moon and stars intrigued him such that he thought they were his providers and gods. This can be seen quite similar to a teenage fad that certain American teenagers are known to go through during the period of adolescence.  Sometimes they are infatuated not by planetary stars but by rock stars or entertainers, or musicians, or a certain rebellious lifestyle, or they get into the “wrong crowd.” 

In Islamic tradition, after God endows Abraham with wisdom and he realizes his true Lord, the Sovereign of the Universe, then he realizes that the religious practice of his father was contrary to his own understanding of reality.  His father, Terah, was an idol worshipper. And during one day in his life, he asked his father, “father, why do you worship that we does not hear or see and can succor you. He then pleads with his father to abandon idolatry and to follow the straight path of monotheism. He further states to his father that he fears that if his father continues to follow this satanic idolatry, he will be punished severely by the Lord of the all worlds. Now, Abraham father was swift and damning, So, you reject my gods, do you Abraham?  If you do not persist in this foolishness, I will stone you. Now be gong from me!

  This is where I find Abraham’s reaction interesting, but also relevant for our purposes.  On the threat of physical harm by his own father, Abraham does not respond in kind.  He does not strike out at his father physically.  He does not condemn his father.  Nor, does he leave his father.  Instead, he replies, PEACE BE UNTO YOU FATHER.  I will ask my Lord forgiveness for you.  Then, later on in another Surah in the Quran, Abraham asks his Lord to forgive his father.  [26:83-88].

Abraham’s attitude to the threat from his father and his father’s community should make all of us reflect on how the “friend of God” reacted to those he disagreed with.  It should make us pause and ruminate about the Abrahamic approach to disagreement. This attitude is also reflected in a Quranic verse in Surah Ankabut which tells Muslims to be respectfully of the People of the Book where it states:

Do not argue with the People of the Scripture unless it is in a civilized or good way. One that maintains harmony and satisfaction.

2:62 – Those who are Muslim, Jews, Christians, Sabeans, believe in God and the Last Day, and are righteous shall have no fear and will earn their reward.

2:109 -  Forgive or have Patience with the People of the Book and indulge them. 

The Abrahamic ideal in Islamic thought is best reflected in the designation of Abraham as the “friend of God.”  Abraham thus represents the prototype of the ideal friend.  It is the friend who stands up for truth.  It is the friend who forgives and offers supplication despite being rejected or admonished. 
This notion of Islamic pluralism was not just a theory for the elite or merely deposited in mystical texts.  Rather, it was cultivated in practice throughout the lands of Islam. Hence, wherever Muslim empires grew, people of other faith and traditions were not merely tolerated, but participated in the fruits of the empires:

1) Moses Maimonedies in Muslim Spain;
2) Christian physicians and poets, philosophers in the Court of the Abbasid Caliphs;
3) The Muslim Mughal Empires of India hired Hindu poets, scholars in their courts, particularly the Emperor Akbar. 

In addition, records of Mughal administration indicate that there may have been considerable adaptation of the law at the community level. Villages were grouped into territorial units, each with its own qadi, civil officer, and other administrators.  At least in some instances,  the qadi had a mufti (Muslim jurist) and a pandit (a Brahman, learned in the law) to guide him.  Similarly, each civil officer was served by two clerks, one for Hindi and the other for Persian correspondence. The dual capacities of local officials suggest that Mughal institutions reflected the Subcontinent’s mix of Hindus and Muslims. In some cases, this mix affected the contents of the law itself. For example, Hindu customs barring females from inheriting land were adopted by Muslims, despite the Qur’anic designation of female heirs.

Islam’s Vision of Love

One of the other elements within Islamic thought that is readily seen in the works of the luminaries such as Jalaluddin Rumi and even Abu-Hamid al-Ghazali is the concept of love. Today, the modern secular culture (what we term today as pop culture) is imbued solely with the concept of romantic love.  Now, romantic love is to be distinguished from spiritual love.  In terms of literature, romantic love stems from those passionate stories of the troubadours which made their way from Southern European culture toward the end of the French enlightenment period, reflected in such Romantic works as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  Here we have a case of love which is forbidden both socially but also morally.  The concept here betrays the very sense of loyalty to a spouse or of a contractual obligation. In fact, the very basis of romantic love is derived from a context of something which is unacceptable by its very nature and therefore disloyal.

To the contrary, the notion of love found in the essence of man’s relationship to God is one based on loyalty. It is love that is unconditional.  The idea of love has its basis in the Quran, for God loves those that are pious and kind. 

Chapter 3 - Imran

[31] - Say, (O Muhammad, to mankind): If ye love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

[76] - Nay, but (the chosen of Allah is) he who fulfilleth his pledge and wardeth off (evil); for lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil).

[103] - And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.

[148] - So Allah gave them the reward of the world and the good reward of the Hereafter. Allah loveth those whose deeds are good.

Chapter 5 - Maida

5:42 -  “. . . But if thou judgest, judge between them with equity. Lo! Allah loveth the equitable.

5:54 - O you who believe! whoever from among you turns back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people, He shall love them and they shall love Him,

5:93 . . . So be mindful of your duty to Allah and do good works; and again; be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.

In fact, the notion of brotherly love led to the notion of spiritual chivalry which was a very important component of Sufi orders in the classical Islamic period and which to a great degree exists today in the Muslim world. 

Al-Ghazali says, the love of God is the highest of all topics and is the final aim.  Human perfection resides in this, that the love of God should conquer a man’s heart and posses it wholly, and even if it does not possess it wholly it should predominate in the heart over other things. Love signifies the passing away of the individual self; it is an uncontrollable rapture, a God-sent grace which must be sought by ardent prayer and aspiration. 

So how does one love God?  From the spiritual perspective, loving God is not like loving through the other five senses such as seeing beauty with eyes or hearing something beautiful with the ears, but rather it is a sixth sense implanted in the heart which animals do not possess, through which we become aware of spiritual beauty and excellence.  Such love is directed not towards any outward form, but toward the inner character.  However, love of God can only arise for those who have knowledge of God’s existence and who are aware of Him.  Hence, knowledge of God is a prerequisite of love of God.

Love for God is also important for the here after.  Al-Ghazali says, He who supposes that it is possible to enjoy happiness in the next world apart from the love of God is in error.  The enjoyment of God is happiness. But if he had no delight in God before, he will not delight in Him then, and if his joy in God was but slight before it will be but slight then. In brief, our future happiness will be in strict proportion to the degree in which we have loved God here.

Rabia – Love of God

She stated:  “Oh God, if I worship you in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship you in hope of paradise exclude me from paradise; but if I worship you for your own sake then do not withhold your everlasting beauty.”

Recently, I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit Konya, the home of Rumi. Therefore, I think it is only fitting that I conclude with the words of Mevlana (“master”) as he is often called.  Rumi offers us a beautiful poem which inspires the human spirit toward a filial relationship. He states:

Through love all this bitter will be sweet;
Through love all that is copper will be gold;
Through love all dregs will be turn to purest wine;
Through love all pain will turn to medicine;
Through love the dead will all become alive;
Through love the king will turn into a slave;


 You know the value of every article of merchandise,
 But if you do not know the value of your own soul, it’s all foolishness.
 You have come to know the fortunate and the inauspicious stars, but you don’t know whether you yourself are fortunate or unlucky.
 This, then is the essence of all sciences—that you should know who you will be when the Day of Judgment arrives.

Thus, by incorporating the concept of friend as beautifully exemplified in the character of the Prophets Muhammad and Abraham and the importance of love in the literature of Islamic tradition, we can continue on this journey toward meaningful inter-religious cooperation.

1.    The author is grateful to Salima Christie Burke for this reference.