Q: What do you think people of faith might benefit from interfaith dialogue?
A: Peaceful dialogue is very good and useful in all circumstances. I have personally experienced that interaction and dialogue between people of different faith backgrounds are always useful for all concerned—in terms of intellectual development or in terms of telling people about God and God’s Creation Plan.
Dialogue is necessary for inviting people to God, which is a basic duty and mission for people who have faith in God. I do not think there is any minus point in dialogue at all, provided it is in the form of serious discussion and intellectual exchange, and not polemics or debate.
When you interact and dialogue with others, you exchange thoughts and views. If the other party accepts your views, you gain a companion. And if the other party does not accept your views, if they are not convinced about them, at least you gain valuable experience in terms of intellectual exchange. So, either way, whether or not the other party veers round to accepting your views, you stand to gain from dialogue and interaction.
There’s an important point I need to add here when it comes to the engagement of Muslims in such dialogue. I have participated in several interfaith dialogue initiatives, in India and abroad. But according to my experience, these efforts were not very beneficial. It was not because dialogue is itself not beneficial. Dialogue is always good. The reason that these dialogue initiatives were not very beneficial is that I think Muslims are not very familiar with the process of dialogue. Muslims know only debate, not dialogue. And so, I found that while the other parties were sincerely engaged in trying to promote dialogue, the Muslims who were present in these meetings were not sincere about it, because they only knew how to debate. Always, I have noticed, Muslims use the language of debate. In this regard, I would say that there is an urgent need to bring about reform in Muslim thinking. We have to convince Muslims to abandon the debate method and to opt, instead, for scientific, peaceful, meaningful and positive dialogue.
But even then I am hopeful, because at least through the few dialogue initiatives that some Muslims may presently be participating in, they may gain some useful and valuable experiences. Although Muslims are not very competent to engage in dialogue, every Muslim who has the good fortune of being able to participate in a dialogue will be exposed to some new learning experiences, which may help him reform himself, his thinking, his attitude to others, and his behaviour.
So, I am greatly in favour of interfaith dialogue, and I think that it is a wonderful thing for Muslims, as well as, of course, for everyone else.
Q: There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad which says: ‘Wisdom is the lost property of the believer; wherever he finds it he has the right to take it’. In the light of this statement, what possibility do you feel there is for Muslims to appreciate and learn from wise and good things in other religions? Do you think that this could be one benefit of dialogue—that people of different faiths could gain positive things from other spiritual traditions through interacting with others?
A: Yes, Muslims must take wise and good things from other religions. But, thishadith is not regarding matters of belief; it is regarding the matters of practical life.
Q: So, do you think it is permissible, according to Islam, for Muslims to learn about and appreciate and praise good things in other religions, which might happen through interfaith dialogue?
A: Yes, certainly! Learning is a continuous process. It has no limits. Even if you have found out the truth with the capital T, you can still learn from others without losing your conviction.
Q: Some Muslims might feel that appreciating good things in other religions may weaken their faith. What do you feel about this attitude? Wouldn’t that make them less enthusiastic about dialogue?
A: This kind of thinking is absolutely wrong. Only ignorant people can speak in this manner. Islam gives you conviction. At the same time, it also gives you kindness or forbearance.
Q: Many Muslims see other faiths as deviant, ignoring or being blind to the good things that many of these religions contain. This is certainly a major barrier to Muslim engagement in interfaith dialogue. Do you think this is a proper Islamic approach?
A: No, this is a communal approach. It is definitely not a genuinely Islamic approach. The communal approach makes one a fanatic, while a truly Islamic approach makes one curious about and sympathetic towards everyone, even for those who follow other religions.
Q: Many Muslims are intolerant of people of other faiths, whom they label askafirs. I think this is a major barrier to Muslim engagement in interfaith dialogue. Who, according to you, are kafirs and how should Muslims relate with them?
A: It is totally wrong to divide people in terms of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Kafir’. According to the Quran, every person is insan, or a human being. All people have common ancestors, that is, Adam and Eve. This means that all people are blood sisters and blood brothers. According to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: Al-khalq ayalullah. That is, all creatures are the family of God. This means that Muslims should live in the midst of others as though they were their family members, and should deal with them accordingly.
The word kafir literally means ‘denier of truth’. But this can be determined only by one’s intention. Only God knows who is truly a denier of truth and who is not. Muslims have no right to take the seat of God and go about declaring that so-and-so person or group is kafir. Muslims must fulfil their own duties and should leave all other matters to God. In Islam, there is no concept of being a born Muslim. Therefore, even a Muslim’s being muslim—which means someone who is truly surrendered to God—shall be established only when God confirms his or her being so.
According to Islamic teachings, Muslims have no right at all to declare a person or a community as kafir. This matter belongs to God’s domain. The duty of Muslims is only to treat others as fellow human beings.
Q: In the name of dialogue, some Muslims seek to rebut and criticize other religions. How do you see this approach?
A: According to my experience, Muslims are quite unaware of the concept and spirit of dialogue. The present concept of dialogue is based on mutual sharing, but Muslims are not familiar with it. I have participated in a number of dialogues, and there I found that Muslim participants always try to establish their claims to superiority by condemning the others. This concept prevails even today. Unless this thinking among Muslims changes, they will not prove to be competent to engage in dialogue.
According to my experience, this approach of Muslims has a very negative impact on people of other faiths. Due to such experiences they face from Muslims, the image of Muslims in the minds of the people of other faiths has been badly tarnished. Muslims are looked upon as misfits in the modern world. This is the general impression other people hold with regard to Muslims. Further, this Muslim approach and other activities that Muslims engage in, often in the name of Islam, gravely damage the image of Islam in the eyes of others. Muslims should realise that a combative approach to other faiths can never promote good relations with others. It can only result in further deterioration of these relations. It can never have any positive impact.
Q: Some Muslim groups are vehemently against interfaith dialogue. What do you think of this?
A: According to my study and experience, these groups are a reaction, rather than a positive response to a situation. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is a result of reaction. It was established against Zionism. It wasn’t a pro-Islam movement. It was an anti-Zionist movement. You have to understand this difference. An Islamic movement is one that is pro-Islam, but the Muslim Brotherhood was an anti-Zionist movement, not a pro-Islam movement. So, too, the Jamaat-e Islami, in South Asia. It was an anti-Western civilization movement, not a pro-Islam movement. Hence, because of this, these and other such movements became negative. Theirs was a negative reaction to a situation. And any person or organization or movement that is a product of negative reaction cannot provide a positive response to a situation.
So, according to my experience, all these groups, although their names sound ‘Islamic’, are not really Islamic. They are reactionary movements.
Q: I think Muslims are simply not interested in genuine dialogue with others. They are too exclusivist, always stressing their separate identity. They imagine that Islam has a monopoly over goodness and see no worth in other religions. Maybe I am wrong, but this is the feeling I get. They don’t want to recognise our common humanity, thinking always in narrow, communal terms, about themselves alone.
A: As you know, Muslims generally divide the world between ‘Muslims’ and ‘non-Muslims’, between the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘non-Muslim world’. This kind of thinking is completely wrong. It is un-Islamic. It has no basis in the Quran and the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet. If you read the Quran, you will find that it repeatedly uses the phrase Ya ayyuhal insan, or “O People”. This means that terms like dar al-harb or ‘Abode of War’ and dar al-kufr or ‘Abode of Disbelief’ that were invented by Muslim scholars or ulema in later times, after the Prophet, are wrong. The right term is dar al-insan or ‘Abode of Humankind’. The whole world is dar al-insan.
So, in the world of us human beings, there is only one equation—and that is between man and God, and not between ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’. The true equation, the right equation is between the Creator or God and man. I believe in the oneness of God, and I also believe in the oneness of humankind.