Interfaith Dialogue: Part I, Is It Islamic?
Posted Jul 11, 2013

Interfaith Dialogue: Part I, Is It Islamic?

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

I.  Introduction

Is interfaith dialogue Islamic?  Perhaps this is the first question Muslims should ask in the Qatar Foundation’s special Ramadhan series of radio interviews and scholarly follow-ups on the role of comparative religion and interfaith dialogue in the world today.

Does the divine revelation in the Qur’an recommend dialogue?  If so, what are its guidelines, principles, and methodology?  Has the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, endorsed and practiced dialogue?  If so, when and where?  And how have the spiritual, religious, and political leaders in the Muslim umma over the centuries conducted religious dialogue in both theory and practice? 

II. The Search for Truth

The best answer to these questions should start with explaining three guiding principles for Muslims in developing a new discipline of comparative religion.  The first principle in an Islamic framework for interfaith dialogue is cooperation in the search for truth.  In Surah al An’am, 6:115, God instructs us, kalimatu rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The Word of your Lord is fulfilled and perfected in truth and in justice”.  In the New Testament or Injil, we read in John 14:6 referring to Jesus, ‘alayhi al salam, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, and in John 8:32, “The truth shall set you free”. 

There is no pluralism in truth, but there is pluralism in its manifestation.  There is only one ultimate truth, though in the search for it there are many religions or adyan, which is the plural of din.

Among all the world religions, Islam most strongly emphasizes the coherent pluralism inherent in all of creation, because this coherence constitutes the beauty of existence and points to the Oneness of God. 

For example, if there were only one kind of tree, there would be less beauty in the world.  How impoverished would the beauty of nature be if there were only one standard cloud or one standard sunset, or, indeed, only one standard human being like a mass-produced robot.

The Qur’an tells us that God could have created all humans as one ethnic group, or one color, or one religion, but He has designed us to form independent communities so that the individual members of these communities can get to know each other better both within and among communities and thereby form a more universal and organic community solidarity.  God tells us that He could have made us all into one organized religion, but He chose to give us the free will to seek Him in different ways. 

In Surah al Ma’ida, 5:51, Allah informs us, “To each of you We have prescribed a law and an open way.  If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues.  The goal of you all is to Allah … ”.

The Qur’an in Surah al Ma’ida 5:8-9 and other places spells out the three requirements for fulfilling our purpose in life, known in Christianity as salvation. These are awareness of God (taqwa), belief in justice (‘adl) in a continuum from the here to the hereafter, and doing good works (wa ‘amalu al salihat).
This divine message could not be clearer than in Surah al Ma’ida 5:69, which reads, “Surely those who believe (in the Oneness of Allah and His Messenger Muhammad and all that was revealed to him from Allah), and those who are Jews and Christians - whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and works righteousness, on them shall be no fear, not shall they grieve”.

One can use the metaphor of a circle, where the externals of different religions are arraigned along its periphery or circumference, all pointing to God at the center.  As people follow the distinct paths of their various religions toward God at the center, the more the externals recede in importance until, as these people approach the center, they no longer perceive any differences among themselves because they are focusing only on the presence of the One, as they will in heaven.
The highest level of such awareness is expressed in the first principle of the Islamic faith, la ilaha ille Allah, “there is no god but God”.

III.  Prophethood

The essence of truth in all religions distinguishes between what is known metaphorically as the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of reality.
This analogy is used by meta-physicians, who specialize on what is beyond the physical.  At the top is the ultimate, known as The One or Beyond Being.  The next level down, in what is sometimes known as the emanation of reality, is Being, known in Islam as the Attributes of Allah but in Paulist Christianity as the Persons of the Godhead. 

At the bottom of this representation of reality is the horizontal dimension of human community based on natural law and global ethics, sometimes known by Muslims as the maqasid al shari’ah and by Christians as moral theology.  The maqasid are the articulation of natural law, the Sunnat Allah, consisting of three sources of truth.  First is divine revelation, known in Arabic as haqq al yaqin.  Second is scientific observation of the physical laws of the universe, which includes our own human nature and is known as ain al yaqin.  The third source, which is indirect, is the use of the rational intellect or discursive thought, known as ‘ilm al yaqin, to induct from the first two sources a system of contextualized ethics. 

This system of jurisprudence, known in Islam as the maqasid al shari’ah, which applies only to Muslims, is part of what the Qur’an refers to as part of the higher level of the shar’a and the still higher level of what the Qur’an in two places calls the shar, referring to the universal guidance for all peoples in all times and places.

This system of moral guidance in the Sunnah of Allah depends on persons chosen by Allah to teach what one otherwise might not know or might not be inspired to follow.

This second principle of faith in all the world religions acknowledges the role of divinely inspired prophecy and of prophets, known as Prophethood.  The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, combines the wisdom of them all.  This is why Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the last one.

The Prophet Muhammad compared himself to a brick.  Bukhari relates the famous statement of the Prophet Muhammad, salah allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, “My analogy in comparison with the other prophets before me is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner.  The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say, ‘Would that this last brick be put in place!’ So I am that brick, and I am the last of the Prophets”.

IV.  Consensus and Freedom of Religion

The third guiding principle in interfaith dialogue and more generally in comparative religion is the freedom of religion required to reach consensus on the very basis of human governance.

The four basic principles of political legitimacy on which all Muslims agree are: 1) khilafa, whereby both leaders and followers acknowledge that they are stewards of creation and do not create truth; 2) shurah, which requires that leaders follow a system of consultation with their followers; 3) ijma, which requires that the opinion leaders in society agree among themselves on the best public policies to promote in the search for truth and community well-being or maslaha; and 4) an independent judiciary.

Almost a hundred years ago, the Grand Mufti of Tunisia and the most renowned of the Zaytuna imams, Muhammad al Tahir ibn Ashur, born in 1879, revived freedom of religion as the first principle of Islamic jurisprudence in his seminal book published in 1946, A Treatise on Maqasid al Shari’ah.  He also revived Ibn Taymiyah’s principle of consultation as the basis of the Islamic caliphate.

Shaykh al Islam Taqi al Din ibn Taymiya was imprisoned for ten years and died in prison in 1328 A.C., because he insisted that the Islamic Caliphate was not a military institution and not even a political one, but rather was the consensus by the scholars and wise persons on the definition and practice of compassionate justice. 

His student, Shamsuddin ibn al Qayyim, who died twenty years later, and was the greatest maqsudi scholar in the history of Islam other than Al Ghazali and Al Shatibi, wrote, “The Islamic law is all about wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife.  It is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good.  Thus any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Islamic law”.

Accordingly, freedom for, not freedom from, religion and for the promotion of consensus on all related aspects of public policy is the third guiding principle for Islamic participation and leadership in interfaith dialogue.

V.  The Early Islamic History of Dialogue

From the very beginning of creation, dialogue has been ubiquitous.  It is part of human nature just as much as are awareness of Allah and the concomitant search for justice.  The Qur’an emphasizes this fact and invokes human reason to learn from this history.
In his “fatwa” issued in early June, 2013, entitled, “Comparative Religion in Islamic Thought”, the recently retired Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, pointed to many instances in the Qur’an where dialogue is emphasized:

1) The dialogue between God and His angels about the creation of Adam and between God and Satan in Al Baqara.
2) The dialogue between the various prophets and their people, described in Surahs Yunus, Hud, Ibrahim, and Nuh.
3) The dialogue between the prophets and their children in Hud and Maryam.
4) The dialogue between the two sons of Adam in Al Ma’ida.
5) The dialogue in the story of the owner of the two gardens in Surah al Kahf.
6) The dialogue of Moses with Pharoah and of Qarun with his people in Al Qasas.
7) The dialogue in the story of Sulayman and Bilqis in Al Naml.
8) The dialogue in the story of Yusuf and his brothers and with the lords’ wife, and between him and the prisoners; and
9) The dialogue between the leaders and followers in the hereafter in Al Baqara, Saba, and Ghafir, and between the people of Paradise and Hell in Surah al A’raf.

The use and reliance on dialogue by the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, throughout his life is well known to students of the Qur’an, Ahadith, Sunnah, and Sirah.  They include the Prophet’s dialogue with his uncle, Abu Talib; with the people of Yathrib in the first and second pledge of Aqaba; with the Quraysh regarding the Pact of Hudaybiya; and the dialogues with the Jews of Madina and with the Christians of Najran in his masjid.  The world’s first constitution, which the Prophet negotiated in Madina, was the result of dialogue.

Most importantly the most lasting impact comes from the Prophet’s method of instructing his more intellectual followers both in Makkah and Madina on the principles or maqasid of Islam.  According to Shaykh Taha Jabir al Alwani in a book on the subject, the Prophet Muhammad gathered his sahaba and presented to them both hypothetical and real cases for decision.  After each had given his judgment, the Prophet addressed them all and told them, “I am not interested as much in your conclusions as I am in the principles you have used to reach them”. 

According to Shaykh Taha, who has long been a member of the World Fiqh Council in Saudi Arabia, Imam Ali excelled all the others in tracing all judgments back to basic principles, nowadays known as the maqasid al shari’ah.

VI.  Distinguishing between Dialogue and Debate

The framers of the questions for each scholar in the Qatar Foundation’s QF Radio series lamented that, “Our materialist tendencies these days have led to a de-spiriting of our inner worlds.  Our perception of life, reality, nature, and other humans has become quantified”. 

Some specific questions for the introduction to this series are: 1) How can we change this perception?;  2) What are the obstacles to dialogue;  3) How do we know when a dialogue is sincere?;  4) What are the main principles of civilized, healthy dialogue?; and 5) Can each of us be a dialoguer, or do we have to leave dialogue to an establishment elite?

The answers to these five questions are contained in the three principles just discussed in this introductory session of the Qatar Foundation’s Ramadhan series on the subject.  The perception advanced by the religio-phobes and Islamophobes can be countered best by following the examples of the Qur’anic message and the Prophet Muhammad’s practice.  The major obstacle to dialogue is the failure of Muslims and others to observe the universal Islamic principles of civilized, healthy dialogue.

Perceptions can change by following the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.  The major obstacle to doing so is failure to follow these examples.

The answer is simple to the question how we can know if a dialogue is sincere.  If the dialogue either starts out as a debate or degenerates into one, it is not sincere.  A debate is a contest to win points in verbal warfare, not to seek truth.  The clever debater manipulates memes, which are word symbols designed to capture the minds of the listeners subliminally so that they do not know their minds have already been captured.  This is part of the old science of rhetoric, in which able politicians, but not statesmen, are called upon to excel.

In a good religious dialogue every participant should gain perspective on one’s own religion in order to understand it better.  In fact, this is really the best reason for any person to engage in dialogue.

In closing, I need only give an example of a “dialogue” that I had with two   Buddhist monks from Nepal, who were assigned to me for orientation at a gathering of religious scholars in Baca, Colorado, in 1982, more than thirty years ago.  The purpose of this great gathering was to create a city of monasteries from all the world religions.  Since I was still a hidden Muslim at that time, but was an expert in my own Cherokee heritage, I represented American Indian religions.

Since we had only five minutes before the monks had to leave in order to settle into their new accommodations, and since I had no idea how to dialogue with Buddhist monks, I asked them, “Can you explain to me the essence of Buddhism in five minutes?” 

They laughed and said, “We do not need five minutes to answer anything so simple”.  “First”, they said, “We have Hinayana Buddhism, in which one learns to separate oneself from attachments to the material world, so that one can live within the world but not of it.  Once one has done this, we have Mahayana Buddhism, in which one can reach the level of nirvana, which is translated as “nothing” or “no thing”, in other words, awareness of the ultimate in transcendence, which you call God.  And then we have the level of Tantrayana or Tibetan Buddhism, in which one’s great desire is to bring compassionate justice to every person and to everything in the universe.

My immediate response was, “You might not know that I am a Muslim, but I assure you that you have just summarized everything there is to know about the essence of Islam in thirty seconds”.