Interreligious Dialogue: A Prospective Solution

By: Ahmed Al-Gaisi

  • | Tuesday, 15 August, 2023
Interreligious Dialogue: A Prospective Solution

      Motivated by hatred, arrogance, racism, and intolerance while taking advantage of some noble ideals, like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, some persons have recently and repeatedly desecrated the Glorious Qur’an – the Holy Islamic symbol - in a very blatant way in some Western democratic countries, which self-identify as such.

In Islam, there is a rule-stipulating verse that reads, “If you [believers] have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate...” (Qur’an, 16:126). So, can a Muslim, in response, burn a copy of the Bible? The answer is of course NOT; a Muslim cannot be a true Muslim unless he/she believes in and respects all the previous prophets and messengers. So, how does one express his/her opinion freely while respecting the other? And how can these different views come to a meeting point?

Each (divine) religion enjoys its unique identity and complete makeup. Each has its own perception of God, human soul and life. Interreligious dialogue (IRD), among other solutions, brings the discussion of differences to the surface in order to be very aware of the idea of unity in diversity. Thus, it increases our openness to and understanding of the other and ourselves as well, which can help advance more mutual respect, intercultural awareness and conflict resolution to promote pluralistic and integrated coexistence. So, IRD should lead to syncretism not conflict (Ariarajah, 2019).

IRD Nature

As a prominent IRD contributor, Hans Kung tried to promote world peace through establishing cordiality among the major religions of the world. He believes that such peace starts by exploring the common ground - which already exists - in terms of ethics, a Global Ethic. Based on Kung’s work, the Declaration toward a Global Ethic was passed by the Parliament of World Religions in 1993 (Kefa and Moses, 2012).

Interreligious dialogue is deemed as a quiet positive response to violence taking place (un)deliberately in the name of religion as it is a means of religious as well as political peacebuilding; such understanding paves the way for building a universal peace. Thus, interreligious dialogue stands against the viewpoint that sees religion as a main factor of causing violence.

However, Kefa and Moses (2012, p. 30) assert that it “is always important to remember that IRD is not about the fusion of religions. It is always stressed upfront that whatever common aims and principles they may share, understanding and dialogue should not seek to undermine the fundamental distinctiveness of each religion.” Along the same line, Abu-Nimer and Shafiq (2007) believe that IRD stipulates to keep your own faith secure while attempting to understand the other’s.

In so doing, IRD involves meeting people themselves to know their religious traditions. It consists of "discussions for mutual understanding held among differing religious bodies; the interaction of mutual presence … speaking and listening … witnessing the commitments, the values, and the rituals of others" (Kefa and Moses, 2012, p. 11). They clarify that parties are not compelled to have the opinion of one another nor have to adopt a religious common ground because differences should be accepted as they are. Cornelio and Salera (2012, p. 43) state that when they examined some youth’s responses to the issue of IRD, they found that “the significance of interfaith revolves around the person (and not his or her religion), friendships, and collective participation in the community.”.

Speaking in terms of the IRD as an irreplaceable topic, Swidler and Mojzes (2000) as quoted by Swidler (2013, p. 3) assert that IRD is at the heart of dialogue as religion is highly effective and related to every human discipline by explaining “the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly.” Al-Homodi (2010) also asserts that IRD makes followers of other faiths and cultures meet in a positive environment to pursuit their common grounds in order to reach peaceful coexistence. It also encourages people to cooperate to spread ethical values and truth in an attempt to challenge exploitation, moral deviation, family breakdown, stereotyping, mistrust, etc.  

Agreeing with Swidler’s (2013, p. 3) exposition regarding the nature of IRD that reads “I can learn from you”, Cornille (2013) argues that the ideal form of IRD involves listening to and learning from one another. Similarly, Hall (2005) believes that IRD is strongly recommended because it allows followers of different religions to learn about each other’s tradition to avoid prejudice, to humanize societies, purify and deepen one’s own religious commitment, and advance indigenous peoples’ cultural values. So, IRD, in a broader sense, is perceived as a form of comparative theology or deliberate process of gaining knowledge about the religious other. Cornille (2013, p. 23-4) states that IRD “is often regarded as a friendly exchange of information about [the other’s religious and cultural] beliefs and practices”. This means that IRD is “a form of mutual or reciprocal witnessing” which is based on integration not challenging or opposing. On the other hand, “mission or evangelization is seen to involve an attempt to convince the other…” and getting them converted. In the same context, debate implies a sense of confrontation that seeks to prove that the other or their beliefs are going wrong. Thus, striking a balance between openness to different perspectives while still preserving one's own identity and beliefs deserves reflection as an approach.

Each party should interchangeably believe that they have something to learn and something to teach because “interfaith dialogue does not intend to erect the new one-world religion. We accept that religious diversity is with us to stay, but we wish to learn to work together cooperatively for the future of the world rather than adopt an attitude of isolation” (Hall, 2005, pp. 2-3). Moreover, Camilleri (2004) states that IRD is important as it builds bridges of relationships with others and removes fears about them as well. In addition, it increases the awareness of various human traditions.

Procedurally, through IRD experience or participation, participants or facilitators are not likely supposed to speak about the other’s detailed theological values or doctrines in terms of pure theology. Rather, they may describe differences by way of for example, feast traditions, wedding rituals, how to cooperate with one another through everyday activities, etc. In addition, religions likely change from absolute ideas or stereotypes to somewhat practical witnesses by means of establishing good relationships (which is socialization). This means that the different religious beliefs are recognized secondarily regardless of religion, class or race because humanity unites participants and make human rights or universal crises soluble. That is why a human common ground is established (Cornelio and Salero, 2012).

Viewing it as a transformational issue, Hall (2005) believes that IRD importance surpasses establishing good relations among religions. It represents a suitable means of positive transformation of various sides of humanity in general namely, personal, social, cultural, etc., which is the essence of the reconciliatory message of the divine religion.

Although “IFD [interfaith or interreligious dialogue] in and by itself may not end conflict and create universal justice”, it stands as a “powerful tool for relationship-building and for strengthening pro-social norms as a means to amplify advocacy and activism.” In addition, it “can also be a powerful ally for nurturing cultural diversity and pluralism, necessary components for securing rights” (Kefa and Moses, 2012, p. 50).

Moreover, Hall (2005) introduces some underlying presumptions of IRD importance as follows:

  • No single ideology (religion), identity, culture is yet able to convince the world that it has the absolute truth as each claims that ‘truth’ is its own;
  • Freedom of expression and faith right offer a space to express and defend beliefs and practices even if some view them inferior or in error unless there are acts of desecration or blasphemy;
  • Truth and goodness are not religion-exclusive issues because it is important to have all voices of society represented in IRD (interreligious dialogue practices should include other forms of closely related topics, namely interfaith);
  • Human responsibilities for humanity and earth has to be considered;
  • Religious directives are able to offer dignity and justice for majority and minorities; and
  • Dialogue is rooted in the human nature and is urgently needed in the course of human self-realization and achievement individually and collectively.

As for different versions of IRD, there could be local or national concerns in IRD - which could be named intra-religious dialogue - as well as international changeable themes according to the world crises. In other words, IRD can adapt its tools to meet several types of interests. Thus, there could be local copies of IRD next to the international one like culture itself or democracy.


 IRD identity

The first seminal definitions aimed at advancing the relationships between the Christian and Muslim worlds in order to avoid re-fighting or re-colliding anew. At West Tripoli conference in 1976, the Muslim party participating in a Muslim-Christian conference set a definition that was accepted by both Muslim and Christian delegations; it restricted the concept of interreligious dialogue “to the exchange of information without touching upon beliefs and treating the other side with love and respect.” Then the term was restricted again by the Arab side of the Christian Muslim Dialogue based in Beirut to “what contribute[s] to ‘Mutual Coexistence’ between the followers of both religions and nothing more” (Ibrahim, 2010, p. 56).

Additionally, among others, IRD can be viewed as a peaceful response to religious conflicts. Moreover, IRD can attempt to make religion successfully disengaged from the political involvement in order not to be implicated or exploited (un)deliberately. Similarly, Smock (2002b, p. 6) IRD is “about persons of different faiths meeting to have a conversation.” Others view IRD to be meeting people of different religions (faiths, ideologies or cultures) to advance religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

Kefa and Moses (2012, pp. 6-7) think it is necessary to view "active non-violence (ANV) as the foundation upon which interreligious dialogue would be built" for example, peace-seeking figures such as "Mahatma Ghandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and their philosophical application of nonviolence" can be referred to when defining interreligious dialogue.

Hall (2005, p. 6) believes that IRD is a “human communication that seeks to establish (or develop) a world of shared meaning (and possibly shared action) among the dialogue partners”. Furthermore, Garfinkel and Zymelman (2004) believe that IRD is a kind of conversation of people of different religions and faith.

Kefa and Moses (2012) introduce IRD in terms of "a search for understanding" as "a cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions/faiths and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels" (Kefa and Moses, 2012, pp. 12-3).

Mattola, Tajuddin and Galib (2018, p. 128) define IRD in terms of three meeting points, namely a forum that aims at establishing mutual understanding among different religious representatives. They believe that “interfaith dialogue is understood as a forum or dialogue activity between followers of different religions, which serves as a bridge between religious communities to be able to understand each other's different teachings”.

Are there any Islamic theological bases for IRD dialogue in Islam?

    Muslims are intellectually asked to base their dialogue with the other upon the best of ways of discussion when engaging in dialogue and exchanging views with non-Muslims especially the People of the Book (the Christians and the Jews) “ [Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book…” (Qur’an, : 46); Allah the Almighty says, “[Prophet], call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way…” (Qur’an, 16:125). This principle is closely related to Muslim’s belonging because a Muslim subscribes to only one religious belonging: to Islam. However, he/she enjoys the other-accepting stance. Moreover, facing problems when communicating with the other should be a potential for - not abolition of - dialogue continuation; it should be a motivation for studying these problems so that dialoguers can reach a common ground, which is one important aim of IRD. Thus, it is recommended to cooperate with the other to bring the development to the earth and promote welfare to all human beings. In other words, dialogue should be understood as “an invitation to consultation to reach useful objectives and to avoid divergence, exploitation or isolation” (Humaid, 2010, p. 33).

In addition, as Al-Sammak (2010, p. 145-9) asserts, a Muslim dialoguers should be very aware of how Islam views some basic existential issues:

  1. Man is created by Allah as His vicegerent on the earth. This vicegerency is the highest level of Allah’s honor to man. The Almighty says, “[Prophet], when your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a successor on earth…” (Qur’an, 2:30).
  2. So, Man is created as a worshipping vicegerent because Allah says, “I created jinn and mankind only to worship Me…” (Qur’an, 51:56). Man is created to worship Allah and develop the earth;
  3. To empower man in order to be a vicegerent, Allah has subjected to him all things in the heavens and on the earth. The Almighty says, “It is God who created the heavens and earth, who has sent down water from the sky and with it brought forth produce to nourish you; He has made ships useful to you, sailing the sea by His command, and the rivers too; 33 He has made the sun and the moon useful to you, steady on their paths; He has made the night and day useful to you, and given you some of everything you asked Him for. If you tried to count God’s favours you could never calculate them: man is truly unjust and ungrateful.” (Qur’an, 14:32-4);
  4. Allah’s vicegerency on earth is a trust; this trust is a big responsibility. Allah says, “We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, yet they refused to undertake it and were afraid of it; mankind undertook it– they have always been inept and foolish.” (Qur’an, 33:72);
  5. Allah created Man with the ability to discover and learn all sciences. The Almighty says, “He taught Adam all the names [of things]…” (Qur’an, 2: 31): Man was neither created ignorant nor hopeless as the first human being, Adam, was himself a prophet;
  6. Equality is a firm principle in Islam. Allah the Almighty says, “People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide” (Qur’an, 2:30) and “We have honored the sons of Adam” (Qur’an, 4:1). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says, “…there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a white over a black, nor of a black over a white, except with piety… ”(Shuaabu El-Iman by Albaihaqi, No. 5137). This means that all people regardless of their ethnicity, religion or doctrines as people, without exception are created from a single person and will be accounted equally. Moreover, the cause of honoring is humanity. This is the way Allah deals with His creation.
  7. Allah created Man in the best of molds and the most beautiful shapes. The Almighty says, “We create man in the finest state” (Qur’an, 95:4);
  8. Allah created for Man his wife out of his body in order not to feel lonely and that he may enjoy the pleasure of living with her. The Almighty says, “It is He who created you all from one soul, and from it made its mate so that he might find comfort in her” (Qur’an, 7:189);
  9. Man is not accountable for an error or a sin that he/she did not commit. Allah the Almighty says, “Each soul is responsible for its own actions; no soul will bear the burden of another.” (Qur’an, 6:164).

Adopted from Al-Sammak (2010, pp. 145-9)

Moreover, Humaid (2010) also figures out some additional theological bases for dialogue in Islam, viz.:

  1. Dialogue in Islam is based on faith in Allah, His book and His prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It is also based on fear of Him, humility to Him and confidence in His help;
  2. Following the role model of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and his companions is a religious duty where a Muslim dialoguer abides by Islamic moral directions and dialogue ethics. This is to say that moderate dialogue is a firm basis of Islamic thought and culture;
  3. Diversity is a deliberate divine reality. So, a party has to be aware of diversity and freedom of thought and belief. In other words, different races, languages, and methods are all out of Allah’s mercy and grace. Allah says, “If your Lord had pleased, He would have made all people a single community, but they continue to have their differences (Qur’an, 11:118) and says “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware” (Qur’an, 2:30);
  4. Believing in human fraternity and bringing the good for people as well as the earth is a general Islamic value.                         

Adopted from Humaid (2010, pp. 34-45)

Along the same line, Kefa and Moses (2012, pp. 34-5) state the following:

Muslims are encouraged not to feel discouraged or upset if people seem unconvinced by their Muslim beliefs, the Almighty says, “We have sent verses that clarify the right path: God guides whoever He will to a straight path” (Qur’an, 24:46). Accordingly, “As He has already revealed to you [believers] in the Scripture, if you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things…” (Qur’an, 4:140).


Goals and topics of IRD

One of the most important goals of IRD is making and conducting just and peaceful social change - at the higher (leaders), middle (middle-class officials or citizens) and lower (grassroots) levels, which ultimately brings proper peaceful co-existence. In addition, there are other goals, namely:

  1. The goal of IRD is not directed towards a theological unity; we should believe in and accept the reality of diversity (Cornelio and Salera, 2012);
  2. Promoting religious tolerance and cultural diversity to achieve peaceful coexistence;
  3. We should not think that the only way to resolve conflicts or differences is through a win-loss game, but a win-win one should be adopted (Hall, 2005 and Smock and Qamar-ul Huda. (2009);
  4. Discussing diversity, integration and inclusivity, the rise of islamophobia and racism should be properly considered;
  5. IRD should deal with the issues of the day and addresses current crises that concern human beings. In other words, IRD should be both modern and global in order to be universally accepted and be able to achieve sustainable outcomes;
  6. IRD facilitators should work for establishing good relationships or even real friendships among themselves;
  7. Establishing partnership with grassroots organizations in order to increase awareness and widen the base of participants;
  8. Dialogue brings humans together positively and sets warmth because it is unlikely to hate a religion or its followers when good relationships or friendships are established;
  9. Result-applicability method has to be adopted. There must be an institutional mechanism or body for applying achieved outcomes;
  10. Adopting applied research, cooperative meetings, educational workshops and training;
  11. Engaging academics and public figures with religious scholars as one team of IRD practitioners;
  12. Qualifying women and young people to take part in discussions through gradual training and education;
  13. Moving from respecting the religious others to understanding them.

In addition, Mattola, Tajuddin and Galib and 2018 make some additional remarks as follows:

  1. To study other religions directly from the main source;
  2. Interfaith participants are agents of peace;
  3. To be a more open person; and
  4. To get new friends and new experiences.

Considering the great importance of IRD in peacebuilding and peaceful coexistence among religions and their followers, Al-Azhar has always called for good relations with the other through practical steps. A few examples include holding several interreligious and intercultural conferences and events in 2104, 2017, 2018 and 2020; establishing the Egyptian Family House in Egypt in cooperation with the Egyptian church in 2013; signing the Human Fraternity Document with Pope Francis of the Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi in 2019; and modifying Al-Azhar’s educational curricula through introducing coexistence-based content.




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