The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue
People are talking about peace, contentment, ecology, justice, tolerance, and dialogue. Unfortunately, the prevailing materialist worldview disturbs the balance between humanity and nature and within individuals. This harmony and peace only occurs when the material and spiritual realms are reconciled.
Religion reconciles opposites: religion—science, this world—the next world, Nature—Divine Books, material—spiritual, and spirit—body. It can contain scientific materialism, put science in its proper place, and end long-standing conflicts. The natural sciences, which should lead people to God, instead cause widespread unbelief. As this trend is strongest in the West, and because Christianity is the most influenced, Muslim—Christian dialogue is indispensable.
Interfaith dialogue seeks to realize religion’s basic oneness and unity, and the universality of belief. Religion embraces all beliefs and races in brotherhood, and exalts love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom via its Prophets.
Islam has a Prophetic Tradition that Jesus will return during the last days. For Muslims, this means that such values as love, peace, brotherhood, forgiveness, altruism, mercy, and spiritual purification will have precedence. As Jesus was sent to the Jews and all Jewish Prophets exalted these values, dialogue with the Jews must be established, as well as a closer relationship and cooperation among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
There are many common points for dialogue. Michael Wyschogrod writes that there are as many theoretical or creedal reasons for Muslims and Jews drawing closer together as there are for Jews and Christians coming together.1 Furthermore, Muslims have a good record of dealing with Jews: There has been almost no discrimination, no Holocaust, denial of basic human rights, or genocide. In fact, Jews were welcomed in times of trouble, as when the Ottoman State embraced them after their expulsion from Spain.
Muslim difficulties in dialogue
In the last century alone, far more Muslims have been killed by Christians than all Christians killed by Muslims throughout history.2 Many Muslims, even educated and conscious ones, believe the West seeks to undermine Islam with ever-more subtle and sophisticated methods.
Western colonialism is remembered. The Ottoman State collapsed due to European attacks. Foreign invasions of Muslim lands were followed with great interest in Turkey. The gradual “transformation” of Islam into an ideology of conflict and reaction or into a party ideology also made people suspicious of Islam and Muslims.
Islam was the greatest dynamic for Muslim independence. It has been viewed as an element of separation, a harsh political ideology, and a mass ideology of independence that raised walls between itself and the West.
Christendom’s historical portrayal of Islam as a crude distorted version of Judaism and Christianity, and the Prophet as a fraud, still rankle. See also: The Crusades
Dialogue is a must
For interfaith dialogue to succeed, we must forget the past, ignore polemics, and focus on common points. The West’s view has changed. Consider Massignon, who says Islam is “the faith of Abraham revived with Muhammad.” He believed that Islam has a positive, almost prophetic mission in the post-Christian world, for: “Islam is the religion of faith. It is not a religion of natural faith in the God of the philosophers, but faith in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Ishmael, faith in our God. Islam is a great mystery of Divine Will.” He believed in the Qur’an’s Divine authorship and Muhammad’s Prophethood.3
The West’s perspective on our Prophet also has softened. Such Christian clerics and people of religion like Charles J. Ledit. Moubarac, Irene M. Dalmais, L. Gardet, Norman Daniel, Michel Lelong, H. Maurier, Olivier Lacombe, and Thomas Merton express warmth for Islam and the Prophet, and support dialogue.
The Second Vatican Council, which Initiated this dialogue and so cannot be ignored, shows that the Catholic Church’s attitude has changed. In the Council’s second period, Pope Paul VI said:
“On the other hand, the Catholic Church is looking farther, beyond the horizons of Christianity. It is turning towards other religions that preserve the concept and meaning of God as One, Transcendental, Creator, Ruler of Fate and Wise. Those religions worship God with sincere, devotional actions…
“The Church reaffirms to them that in modern society in order to save the meaning of religion and servanthood to God—a necessity and need of true civilization—the Church itself is going to take its place as a resolute advocate of God’s rights on man…
“In our world that has become smaller and in which relations have become closer, people expect answers from religion regarding mysterious enigmas in human nature that turn their hearts upside down. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is goodness and reward, what is sin? What is the source and point of suffering? What is the path to true happiness? What is death, what is the meaning of judgment after death and receiving the fruits of what one has done? What is the mystery surrounding the beginning and end of existence?…
“The Church encourages its children, together with believing and living as Christians, to get to know and support with precaution, compassion, dialogue and co-operation those who follow other religions and to encourage them to develop their spiritual, moral and socio-cultural values.”4
Pope John Paul II admits in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Muslims worship in the best and most careful manner. He reminds his readers that, on this point, Christians should follow Muslims.
Islam’s resistance to materialist ideologies and its important role in the modern world has amazed Western observers. E. H. Jurji’s remarks are significant:
“In its self-respect, self-maintenance, and realistic zeal, in its fight for solidarity against racist and Marxist ideologies, in its vigorous denunciation of exploitation, as in the preaching of its message to a wayward, bleeding humanity, Islam faces the modern world with a peculiar sense of mission. Not confused and not torn apart by a mass of theological subtleties, nor buried beneath a heavy burden of dogma, this sense of mission draws its strength from a complete conviction of the relevance of Islam.”5
Muslims and Christians have struggled with each other for almost 14 centuries. The West remembers Islam’s military might and invasions. Current Muslim opposition to and resentment of the West benefit no one. In our global village, the West cannot wipe out Islam and Muslim armies cannot attack the West. Both sides can benefit from each other. The West has scientific, technological, economic, and military supremacy; Islam possesses an uncorrupted and living spiritual tradition rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Religion has not escaped unbelief’s onslaught. Muslims cannot limit Islam to a political ideology or an economic system, or consider the West and other religious from a historical perspective and define their attitude accordingly. Those who adopt Islam as a political ideology do so usually out of personal or national anger or hostility. We must end this practice, and base our actions on Islam as a religion. The Prophet defined a true Muslim as one from whom others are safe, as the most trust-worthy representative of universal peace.
Muslims must stop acting out of ideological or political partisanship and dressing it up in Islamic garb, or represent mere desires as ideas. This has caused the West to adopt a distorted vision of Islam. For example, American universities teach Islam as a political system in their political science or international relations departments.6 Such a perception is found among Westernized Muslims and non-Muslim Asians and Africans. Strangely enough, many groups that have put themselves forward under the banner of Islam export this image and actually strengthen it.
Islam’s ecumenical call for dialogue
Fourteen centuries ago, Islam made history’s greatest ecumenical call: Say:
“O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him; that we take not, from among ourselves lords and patrons other than God.” If they turn back, say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims (surrenders to God’s Will)” (3:64).
The Islamic statement of faith—There is no god but God—is a call not to do certain things, so that followers of revealed religions could end their separation. It represented the widest statement on which religious people could agree. If it was rejected, Muslims were to reply:
“Your religion is for you; my religion is for me.”
Elmalili Hamdi Yazir, a famous Turkish Qur’an interpreter, observed:
“Various consciences, nations, religions, and books can unite in one essential conscience and word of truth. Islam has taught the human realm such a wide, open, and true path of salvation and law of freedom. This is not limited to Arab or non-Arab. Religious progress is possible not by consciences being narrow and separate, but by their being universal and broad.”7
Islam gave these as gifts. Said Nursi explains this broadest scope of Islam from a contemplative observation:
“I thought about we in: You alone do we worship, and You alone we ask for help (1:5), and my heart asked why we was used in place of I. Suddenly I discovered the virtue and secret of congregational prayer. By praying together at the Bayezid Mosque, every individual became a kind of intercessor for me. As long as I recited the Qur’an there, everyone testified for me. I took courage from its great and intense servitude to present my insufficient servitude to the Divine Court.
“Another reality unveiled itself: All of Istanbul’s mosques united and came under Bayezid’s authority. I felt they confirmed me in my cause and included me in their prayer. I saw myself in the earthly mosque, in circular rows around the Ka‘bah. I said: ‘Praise be to the Lord of the worlds. I have so many intercessors; all of us are saying the same words, and they are confirming me.’
“As this reality was unveiled, I felt I was praying before the Ka‘bah. So, I took those worshippers as witnesses and said:
‘I witness that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger.’ I entrusted this testimony of faith to the Black Stone. While leaving this trust, another veil opened. I saw that the congregation I was in had separated into three circles.
“The first circle was a large group of believing Muslims and those who believe in God’s existence and Unity. The second circle contained all creatures performing the greatest prayer and invocation of God. Every class or species was busy with its unique invocation and litanies to God, and I was among them. The third circle contained an amazing realm that was outwardly small, but, in reality, large due to its duty and quality. From my body’s atoms to the outer senses, there was a congregation busy with servitude and gratitude.
“In short, we worship pointed to these groups. I imagined our Prophet, the Qur’an’s translator and propagator, addressing humanity in Medina:
O humanity, worship your Lord (2:2 1).
Like everyone else, I heard his command in my spirit, and like me, everyone in the three groups replied:
‘You alone do we worship.’”8
Interacting with non-Muslims
The Qur’an says:
This is the Book; wherein there is no doubt; a guidance to those who fear God (2:2).
These pious ones are those:
Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in what is sent to you and what was sent before you, and (in their hearts) have the reassurance of the Hereafter (2:3-4).
At the very outset, the Qur’an calls people to accept the former Prophets and their Books. Having such a condition at the very beginning seems very important to me, especially in the matter of interfaith dialogue.
God commands: And discuss not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation) (29:46).
Here, the Qur’an describes how to proceed. Said Nursi’s view is significant: “Anyone who is happy about his opponent’s defeat in debate is without mercy.” He explains: “You do not gain anything by his defeat. If you were defeated and he was victorious, then you would have corrected one of your mistakes.” Debate should enable the truth to come out. Surah Mumtahana says:
God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just (60:8).
Some Qur’anic verses criticize the People of the Book for wrong behavior, incorrect thought, resistance to truth, creation of hostility, and undesirable characteristics; the Bible contains even stronger expressions. However, immediately thereafter, the Qur’an uses very gentle words to awaken hearts to the truth and to plant hope. Its criticism and warning about some attitudes and behavior found among Jews, Christians, and polytheists also were directed toward Muslims who engaged in such behavior.
All revealed religions are based on peace, security, and world harmony. War and conflict are aberrations to be controlled. An exception is made for self-defense, which must follow certain guidelines. Islam established rules to balance and limit war. For example, it takes justice and world peace as a basis: Let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from Justice (5:8). Islam developed a line of defense based on protecting religion, life, property, the mind, and reproduction. The modern legal system also has done this.
Islam gives the greatest value to human life by saying that killing someone is the same as killing everyone, for one murder engenders the idea that anyone can be killed (5:32). Adam’s son Cain was the first murderer. The Bible gives more details of this event, which began the epoch of bloodshed. For this reason, a Prophetic Tradition states:
“If a person is killed unjustly, without exception some of that sin will be credited to Cain, for he opened the way of unjust killing to humanity.”9
The Pillars of Dialogue
Love is a person’s most essential element. It is a most radiant light, a great power that can resist and overcome every force. Love elevates every soul that absorbs it, and prepares it for eternity. Those who make contact with eternity through love seek to implant in others what they receive. They dedicate their lives to this, and endure any hardship for its sake.
Altruism generates love. Whoever has the greatest share in this love is the greatest hero of humanity, one who has uprooted any personal feelings of hatred and rancor. Such heroes continue to live even after death, and during life are welcomed and loved by people.
The most direct way to one’s heart is love, the way of the Prophets. Its followers are not rejected; even if they are rejected by some, they are welcomed by many. Once they are welcomed through love, they always attain their goal.
As everything speaks of and promises compassion, the universe can be considered a symphony of compassion. Showing compassion to all living beings is a requirement of being human. Compassion exalts people. For instance, we hear from the Prophet that a prostitute entered Paradise because she gave water to a dog dying of thirst, while another woman entered Hell because she allowed a cat to starve to death.
Forgiving also is a great virtue. As we say: “Errors from the young, forgiveness from the elder.” Being forgiven means a repair, a return to an essence, and finding oneself again. For this reason, the most pleasing action in the Infinite Mercy’s view is the activity pursued amidst the palpitations of this return and search.
Creation was introduced to forgiveness via humanity. Just as God showed His attribute of forgiveness through individuals, He put the beauty of forgiving in their hearts. While Adam dealt a blow to his essence through falling, it was God’s forgiveness that elevated him to Prophethood.
Whenever we err, seeking forgiveness and surmounting the shame of personal sin allows us to attain infinite mercy and overlook the sins of others. Jesus once said to a blood-thirsty crowd: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7). If we understand this, how can we “stone” others?
Malice and hatred turn the land into a pit of Hell. We should carry forgiveness to those whose troubles are pushing them into the abyss. The excesses of those who have no forgiveness or tolerance made the past one or two centuries the most horrific ever. Thus, the greatest gift today’s generation can give is to teach their children how to forgive and be tolerant.
We should ignore others’ faults, respect different ideas, and forgive what is forgivable. We should do this to touch hearts and benefit from contradictory ideas that force us to keep our heart, spirit, and conscience in good shape.
Tolerance is the most essential element of moral systems, and a very important source of spiritual discipline and virtue. It causes merits to attain new depth and extend to infinity, and mistakes and faults to shrink into insignificance. God’s treatment passes through the prism of tolerance, and we wait for it to embrace us and all of creation. This embrace is so broad that a drunk suddenly shook himself free and became a Companion of the Prophet, and a murderer was turned toward the truth and reached the highest rank.
We expect love and respect, tolerance and forgiveness, and liberality and affection, especially from God. But can we expect these if we do not first offer them to others?
The Last Word
Those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves; purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancor, and jealousy; and adorn their outer worlds with virtue. Those who lack self-control, self-discipline, and refined feelings may seem attractive and insightful at first. However, what they inspire in others disappears quickly.
Goodness, beauty, truthfulness, and being virtuous are the essence of the world and humanity. Whatever happens, the world will one day find this essence. No one can prevent this.
By M. Fethullah Gulen
1 Ismail R. Faruqi, Ibrahimi Dinlerin Diyalogu (trans.) (Istanbul: 1993), 51-3.
2 Graham E. Fuller and Ian O. Lesser, Kusatilanlar-Islam ve Bati’nin Jeopolitigi (trans.) (Istanbul: 1996), 41-2.
3 Sidney Griffith, “Sharing the Faith of Abraham: The ‘Credo’ of Louis Massignon,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 8, no. 2: 193-210.
4 Translated from Suat Yildirim, “Kiliseyi Islam ile Diyaloga Iten Sebepler,” Yeni Umit, no. 16, 7.
5 Abu al-Fazl Izzeti, Islamin Yayilis Tarihine Giris (trans.) (Istanbul: 1984), 348.
6 Zaman. (professor Griffith is director of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).
7 HakDini Kur’an Dili (Istanbul), 2: 1131-32.
8 Mektubat, 29; Mektub, 6; Nukte (Istanbul).
9 lmam al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (see Diyat 2; Enbiya 1; Imam Muslim, Sahih Muslim (see Kasame 27).