The Purpose of Interfaith Dialogue
Let me begin by saying that there is no inter-faith without faith. A meaningful dialogue is only possible when people have a deep conviction that their faith has something to offer to the wider society in which they live. In dialogue, mutual understanding cannot be strengthened unless both convergence and divergence are held in a creative relationship.
Inter-faith dialogue is not based on a model of negotiation between parties who have conflicting interests and claims. Rather it sees its role as a process of mutual empowerment for the faiths involved. It is about engagement in public concerns and the joint pursuit of social justice, human dignity and constructive action on behalf of the common good of all citizens. In this endeavour followers of faiths are expected to draw upon their spiritual resources. In fact the demands that our faiths put on us, in a simple and straightforward manner, are demands that require enormous courage and charity.
On many occasions, Muslims have asked, what is the use of inter-faith dialogue? We have our religion, and the only meaningful contact with other religions is in doing da'wah (i.e. giving the message of Islam to those who are not Muslims or who are lapsed Muslims). It has been said that dialogue with other faiths is “a waste of time” - and especially so with Christians. “They are trying to reduce the impact of da'wah” by involving Muslims in dialogue.
Let us be very clear that da'wah is about ‘communication' and ‘invitation' to Islam and not about conversion. Dialogue, on the other hand, is about talking with, and not simply talking about, people of other faiths, beliefs and persuasions. The reality is that the differences of religions are the plan of God, and it is going to remain so forever. The human burden is to connect with the others in dignity and with respect.
Here are just two reasons why Muslims should participate in dialogue with other faiths, and with Christians in particular.
Firstly, Christianity is an important part of western society and culture. It is one of the defining forces of Western civilization. Despite its denominational variations and historical developments, the concepts of God, prophethood, sin and salvation are overwhelmingly provided by Christianity. In fact it has provided a soul for Europe. Ethics and morals in the West have a strong connection with Judeao-Christian traditions on the one hand, and with Greco-Roman civilization on the other. Therefore, Muslims who want to engage in da'wah have to grasp the understanding of the Judeao-Christian perspective of God, revelation, prophets, sin and salvation. Once Muslims study these aspects of society, they are at once engaged in a dialogue not only with Christians, but also with the West and the Western perceptions of all that religion represents. For those who believe that there is an urgent need to understand the culture in which we live, maintaining a dialogue with Western non-Muslim society becomes imperative.
Secondly, there is a common thread that links so many faiths to God. Those who believe in God, despite the fact that their confessional identity is different, are under obligation to join hands in a process where people of diverse faiths can come together. This is in order to face mutually perceived problems, such as ecology, social and moral issues, the value of education, use and abuse of the doctrine of human rights, the exploitation of women, child labour, etc. These are just a few of the important issues about which we could engage with others. In other words, the areas which the Qur'an describes as ma'ruf (good) and munkar (bad) are the very areas of our engagement in dialogue.
Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui is a Visiting Professor at University of Gloucestershire and is a Visiting Fellow in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester. He is the Reader in Religious Pluralism and Inter-Faith Relations at Markfield Institute of Higher Education, where he teaches “Islam and Pluralism,” “Inter-Faith Relations” and is the course director of “Training of Muslim Chaplains”. In the Spring of 2011 he was a Fellow at the Woodstock Institute, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and lived with the community at the Paulist house of studies, St. Paul’s College.