Interfaith dialogue should aim to promote mutual understanding, cooperative relations and respect among different faith followers within a community. I would guess that the largest interfaith dialogue is the conversation of life itself.
Islam has encouraged Muslims to dialogue with others — echoed in the saying of Allah (God), “And argue not with the people of the Scripture, unless it be in (a way) that is better…; and say (to them): ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; and our Ilah (God) and your Ilah (God) is One (i.e. Allah), and to Him have we submitted” (Holy Quran, chapter 29, Verse 46).
However, Muslims may approach interfaith conversation cautiously because the terms and conditions of such dialogue aren’t fully clear. In this essay we offer some recommendations to enable the interfaith community to spread reciprocal understanding and respect. Conversely, abandoning such recommendations could cause us to derail from the goals of such conversation.
Approval of interfaith dialogue, for Muslims, comes first and foremost from the Holy Quran and the way (Sunnah) of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Muslims find considerable similarities between Islamic teachings and those of other religions. For example, many stories mentioned in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah can be found in the Gospel and the Torah. Also, the moral standard in Islam matches that of Buddhism, and so on. Furthermore, Islam is a missionary religion that encourages Muslims to carry faith into the world and inform others about it. Being a missionary religion does not contradict the principle of dialogue. The existence of one does not abolish the other, and the goals of mission and interfaith conversation should stay separate.
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In contrast, disapproval of interfaith conversation, for Muslims, may come from facing the assumption from others that their religion has some truth to offer Muslims. All religious communities, including Muslims, consider their religion to be their way of life. So instead of assuming that others must learn to live better from one’s religion, interfaith dialogue should learn to be more informative than transformative. Additionally, Muslims may look upon interfaith conversation with suspicion due to the oppression Muslims suffer around the world — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Bosnia, etc. — by non-Islamic nations. In my opinion, it would be a nice gesture from the interfaith community to speak up in public in their localities against such oppression and deprivation. Another discourager of interfaith dialogue would be the sense one may experience of an intention to convert, choose a universal religion and/or ignore religious differences. To avoid such feeling, interfaith conversation should focus on individual’s faith sharing and perspective for a certain topic of discussion.
A careful consideration of the above pros and cons clarifies the spirit of Islam that promotes interfaith dialogue. With that we can achieve a fruitful conversation and relationship within our communities. My mother told me once, “Son, choose to be around religious people because then you know what governs their behavior.” Perhaps that is what interfaith dialogue is for. God Bless!
Abdulrahman K. Abumurad is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science & Engineering at Penn State, and a member of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania. For more information about ongoing, local interfaith conversations, email InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com .