Dialogue between people of different faiths is a pressing necessity. Yet, relatively few dialogue initiatives have been launched by Muslims. This is because Muslims, generally speaking, don’t believe in building bridges with non-Muslims in religious matters. They believe in converting them. And there is a deep-seated sense of superiority over people belonging to other faiths. Therefore, by and large, they don’t like to enter into bridge-building religious dialogues.
Many traditional ulema or religious scholars don’t think dialogue with non-Muslims is the way out. Some of them believe in either conquering non-Muslim lands through Jihad as the solution to the problem or preaching to convert them. They do, however, agree that no one is to be forced to accept Islam.
The fact is that our ulema do not consider speaking to non-Muslims with a view to coming close to them as a priority. Moreover, few of our religious scholars have any social contact with non-Muslims. And of these few people, hardly any might genuinely wish to learn about their religions so as to understand their point of view sympathetically. Lamentably, a feeling of superiority, which leads to looking down on others, is the most significant factor in causing this lack of enthusiasm in Muslims coming closer to non-Muslims.
In this regard, I’d like to suggest some changes in conventional Muslim perceptions of others. Firstly, a genuine study of the Qur’anic verses and Hadith reports, which will help in creating true respect for non-Muslims—there are many such verses and reports that stress genuine respect for others. Alongside this, an earnest attempt should be made to clarify the era-specific context-specific nature of Quranic verses and Hadith reports that might seem to give an impression that non-Muslims are not worthy of respect. Also, other religions must be taught in madrasas, where the ulema are trained, to open the minds of the students to have a more accommodating attitude towards non-Muslims. Yet another step that would help in building bridges would be to invite non-Muslim scholars to teach courses on their respective faiths in madrasas.
In the name of dialogue, some Muslim groups seek to rebut and criticize other religions and point out the errors in their scriptures and belief systems. Some try to prove other religions as inferior and mock them.They see this as one of the purposes of dialogue. The question is: Is this compatible with the spirit of dialogue? Can this be called dialogue at all or is it simply inter-religious polemics?
In my opinion, the purpose of dialogue should be to present positively one’s own view with arguments and clarify one’s position in response to questions and criticisms raised by others. Whether one’s faith is superior or not should be left to individuals to infer from the presentation. There is no need to directly target the views of others. That is what I think the Qur’anic expectation in this verse demands: “Invite towards the path of your Lord with wisdom, pleasant instructions, and debate with them in a good manner.” (16:125)
I think clarifying one’s faith in response to questions raised by people belonging to other faiths is natural. However, it needs to be done in a decent, academic way. If differences are not discussed in an academic way, the impact it has on people of other faiths is indeed negative. They feel insulted, and rightly so. An insulting rebuttal to the faith of a believer is very unlikely to bring him closer to the views of the one who is rebutting his beliefs. It doesn’t truly help in promoting better relations between Muslims and others.
It is not just in the field of interfaith or inter-religious dialogue that Muslims are, by and large, quite inactive. There are hardly any efforts among Muslims to promote dialogue among themselves, too—between different sects and schools of thought among Muslims, even though the Qur’an gives great stress to the unity of believers. This has happened because even though the Qur’an is the most frequently read book for Muslims, it is not studied in a way that it is given the status of the text that enjoys ultimate religious authority. Sectarian literature of scholars and ahadith that support the views of one sect or another enjoy a higher status than the Qur’an in practical life for the traditional Muslims.
This situation has occurred because Muslims believe that the Qur’an is too difficult to be understood directly and therefore they need the support of their scholars and hadith reports to understand it. Unless Muslim scholars and intelligent non-scholars decide that the Qur’an has to be the ultimate criterion for them in all religious matters, it will not be possible for Muslims to relate properly with fellow Muslims and with non-Muslims.
That said, in the present atmosphere, when Islam and Muslims are much demonized because of ongoing violence involving Muslims and others, often wrongly in the name of Islam, it is very heartening to note that some Muslims have become more aware of the need to engage in dialogue. I think the situation is ripe for Muslims to wake up and undergo a process of reformation in their religious thinking.
I can see three trends in the Muslim intelligentsia at the moment: a worrying movement away from religion; an equally worrying trend towards religious extremism; and a realization that Islam needs to be understood properly. The third possibility is likely to be effective only if a critical mass of Muslim intelligentsia lends their full support to the efforts undertaken by some scholars who are inviting Muslims to understand Islam on the basis of the Qur’an.