A Handshake between Two Abrahamic Faiths

PROFESSOR U MUHAMMAD IQBAL pleads for sincere dialogue between Muslims and Christians to promote greater understanding of each otherâ??s religion which may strengthen peace and harmony in the world.

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PROFESSOR U MUHAMMAD IQBAL pleads for sincere dialogue between Muslims and Christians to promote greater understanding of each otherâ??s religion which may strengthen peace and harmony in the world.

Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. (St. Matthew, 12:36)
Muslims have been in contact with the Christians during the last millennium and four hundred years in conditions not too friendly and on terms not too equitable. It is not just at the government-to-government level. The contacts are at the people-to-people too, through individuals, groups, and non-governmental organisations. These contacts require an ambience which should promote the common good. Prejudice, aggressiveness, projection of wrongs (imagined or real), misunderstandings, even downright ignorance of the other’s cultural ethos, superiority complex made doubly lethal by sheer contempt for the other community can wreak havoc in inter-personal relationship. So, Muslim-Christian dialogue is the need of the hour or ‘an imperative of the age.’ The two communities should meet with the warmth, assurance, trust and confidence of two friends whose friendship is resilient enough to weather any storm. After all, to understand their interdependence one does not have to go far. Muslims have petrol; Christians have industries whose engines require oil to function. The two communities may live as minorities side by side and share common problems and have perforce to solve them through mutual cooperation.
Islam has given a breadth of vision, a catholicity of outlook, an appreciative mindset to the Muslims from its very inception. Reverence for places of worship is inculcated thus: Monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. (Qur’an, 22:40) A Tanzanian Catholic priest says, “The Temple, the Mosque, the Church, the Synagogue. Each is a visible locus which announces the presence of the divine on earth.” (Intertextuality of the Holy Books, p.17) These two excerpts foster the hope that the ideal of mutual understanding is worthy of realisation.
The initiative for the Muslim- Christian dialogue was taken by the Muslims under God’s orders. “Say O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than Allah.” If they turn away, say ye: Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah’s will).” (3:64) later
“O ye People of the Book! Believe in what We have (now) revealed, confirming what was already with you.” (4:47)
“O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion; nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not ‘Trinity’: Desist: It will be better for you: for Allah is One God: Glory be to Him: (Far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.” (4:171)
“Say; Will you dispute with us about Allah, seeing that He is our Lord and your Lord; that we are responsible for our doings and you for yours; and that we are sincere (in our faith) in Him?
Or do you say that Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do you know better than Allah? Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah? But Allah is not unmindful of what you do!” (2:139, 140)
The Qur’anic excerpts provide the scope of the dialogue. The key to salvation is, “Believe in Allah and His Messengers.” This statement is in total harmony with this Biblical formula for salvation: Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem: Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper. (2 Chronicles, 20:20) In this Biblical formula, there is no insistence upon belief in the triune God and in the Only Begotten Son of God or his crucifixion as a sine qua non for salvation. By accepting Jesus Christ as a Prophet, Islam remains within the space provided by this Biblical formula.
To my knowledge the initiative for interfaith dialogue has passed on to the Christian fraternity in spite of some misgivings they initially harboured about its utility. They pursue this dialogue in a very inclusive and comprehensive manner. They include followers of all religions in this dialogue. More than five waves of such a dialogue have been completed. Long experience in this kind of dialogue has given them a deep insight into the nuances of the dialogue and they have raised its level to that of a well-developed discipline with its own well-defined vocabulary. In fact, the meaning of “dialogue” is given as follows: A conversation between theologians or scholars of different religions does not yet constitute a ‘dialogue’. It is rather a study in comparative religion. Real dialogue happens at a personal level, ‘in the cave of the heart’, to use an Upanishadic phrase, … Dialogue consists in allowing the religious experience of others to happen in us , as we read, study and otherwise encounter the sacred books of other faiths. (Intertextuality of the Holy Books, p.12)
The aims of the interfaith dialogue, according to these Christian authorities, are: Interfaith hermeneutics does not aim at agreement but at understanding. (ibid., p.11) Dialogue drives all communities to self-criticism and to rethinking the ways in which they have interpreted their faith traditions.
“Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancour: fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment.” (Qur’an, 5:2)
In my opinion, by participating in such a dialogue, Muslims can neutralise misinformation about Islam. An impression has gained ground among non-Muslims that Muslims impose their religion upon others. Muslims can impress upon those who care to listen that though they have absolute belief in the superiority of their religion, (and this sense of superiority is derived from the Qur’anic assertion, “The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His will)” (3:19) and this is corroborated if Deuteronomy, 8:3 and St. Matthew, 8:3 are looked up), they claim no divine right to impose Islam upon others. The Qur’an states, “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks.” (2:256) Even this unambiguous and seminal statement on tolerance and freedom to practise religion of one’s choice is pooh-poohed with a dismissive remark that this statement was made when Muslims were persecuted and were in dire need of the right to practise religion freely and when they assumed power, they conveniently forgot this statement. This cynical reaction is very uncharitable and unhistorical. The second chapter of the Qur’an is known as a chapter associated with Medina where Muslims were in power. The Qur’an does not espouse the cause of tolerance and freedom of worship in a single verse. There are other verses too. “If it had been the Lord’s will, they would all have believed – all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind against their will, to believe?” (10:99) “We showed him (man) the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will).” (76:3) “Say, ‘The truth is from your Lord’: Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it).” (18:29)
The Jews and the Christians are reverentially addressed as the People of the Book. While taking the initiative for the interfaith dialogue, the Qur’an instructs the Muslims how the dialogue should be carried on.
“Invite (all) to the Way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance.” (16:125) (It may be noted that the word used is ‘Invite’ and not ‘convert’ or ‘baptise’.)
“And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation) unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury) but say: We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is One; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” (29:46)
Christians have evolved a procedure for the dialogue. They are not expected to compromise the Gospel and they are expected to be firmly rooted in the Sacred Scripture. The basic instruction is: Do not explore bases of belief to the point of questioning one’s own beliefs because to do so may lead to reassessment, doubts about validity and pressure for change. (Intertextuality of the Holy Books, p.21) We should understand each other’s sacred writings. “We must stop misrepresenting or caricaturing each other, always speaking the truth to each other in love.” (ibid., p.13)
The Church insists that “Muhammad was not an inspired Prophet and that all revelation and prophecy ceased after Pentecost.” (ibid., p.28) There is a statement in Jude3 which reads, “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Most scholars of Christianity think that this statement rules out the possibility of another inerrant divinely inspired message. So it becomes the religious duty of the evangelical mission to depict Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him) as a ‘false’ Prophet and to engulf Islam. The unwary, the uninitiated, the needy, and the grateful for the help received are highly vulnerable to the highly sophisticated and impressive techniques used to proselytise. Those who are engaged in this mission may not opt for the dialogue.
Muslims believe in all the Prophets sent by God and we make no distinction between them. They believe in Moses and Jesus too. If the Christians do not believe in Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him), this need not make the dialogue a non-starter. Our beloved Prophet agreed to make the changes demanded by the Quraish delegates in the draft of the Treaty of Hudaibiyah. The phrase, Muhammad the Messenger of Allah, was changed to Muhammad son of Abdullah and this change was tolerated in the interest of peace. Yet the diehard enemies of his prefer to portray him in a contemptuous way.
Muslims and Christians believe in one God and that is a sufficient reason for the two communities to come together to make the earth a haven of peace and holiness, like a mosque, wherein religion ceases to be a sponsor of bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, persecution, discrimination, usurpation and denial of rights, and environmental pollution, etc.
When Christianity and Islam claim to be Abrahamic faiths, both should ensure that their attitude to God does not deviate from Abraham’s attitude to God. “Look unto Abraham your father.” (Isaiah, 51:2) What role God has played in Abraham’s life is described artistically and in a binary manner in the Qur’an. “The Lord and Cherisher of the worlds— who created me and it is He who guides me; who gives me food and drink; and when I am ill, it is He who cures me; who will cause me to die, and then to live (again); and who, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the Day of Judgment.” (26:77-82)
“In six days the Lord made heaven and earth.” (Exodus, 30:11, 31:17) “Lo! your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six Days.” (Qur’an, 7:54) These two excerpts are enough to show that the followers of the Bible and the Qur’an have one and the same God to reckon with. They should join hands and close ranks to glorify Him.
The result of the interfaith dialogue is neither visible nor penetrative because it is a cloistered activity carried on by the elitists of different religious groups and those elitists have no influence at the grassroots level. The UNO is a truly representative body of the nation-states of the world and its schemes have a fair chance of being implemented through the governments. Islam does not have a representative global institution similar to the Vatican or the Anglican Church. The scholars of Saudi Arabia may talk to the emissaries of the Vatican (Radiance, 13-19 January, 2008, p.20) but they do not carry the authority and the clout for global acceptance among the Muslims as the latter do among the millions of the Roman Catholics. The Christian scholars display an amazing grasp of the unique quality of Islam as they learn Arabic and go directly to the primary sources of Islam. They visit mosques and see how Muslims pray. There are not many Muslim scholars who have a deep knowledge of Greek and Latin, of the history of the Church, of the origins of the Old Testament and the New Testament, of the differences of the Christian sects, of the Christian philosophers and saints, rituals and festivals, and of the revivalist movements in Christendom. Through the dialogue Muslims may get a chance to increase their knowledge of Christianity.
Gosbert T.M. Byamungu rightly says, “Genuine religious disagreement can also be healthy.” (Intertextuality of the Holy Books, p.13) The history of Islam tells us that many non-Muslims gave shelter to and protected the Prophet and did not betray him, even when a majority of them were baying for his blood. Who can forget Abu Talib, Mut’am bin Adi, Abdullah bin Uraiqat, Suraqa, etc.? The Qur’an says, “Among the People of the Book are some who, if entrusted with a hoard of gold, will (readily) pay it back.” (3:75) “Among them are some who have faith.” (3:110) “Not all of them are alike.” (3:113) “There are certainly among the People of the Book those who believe in Allah, in the revelation to you and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to Allah.” (3:199) “Those to whom We sent the Book before this– they do believe in this (Revelation). And when it is recited to them, they say: We believe therein, for it is the Truth from our Lord; indeed we have been Muslims (bowing to Allah’s will) from before this.” (28:52, 53) After reading such verses, how can Muslims assume that “goodness is synonymous with, even exclusive to, Islam”? (Intertextuality, p.12)
What makes reconciliation difficult is the Christian attitude and conduct towards Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him). Even though for interfaith dialogue, the Qur’an lays emphasis on the belief in and the rights of God, and there is no insistence on a specific attitude towards the Prophet as he is self-abnegating and modest and does not want to block the lines of communication, Muslims feel hurt at the misrepresentation and distortion of his role and personality not only by caricaturists but also by opinion-makers of high standing and sobriety. Those who reject his claim to be a Messenger of God do not realise that they are rejecting God’s testimony. (4:79)
The Bible has enough material about the characteristics and duties of a Prophet; Muhammad’s claim can be scrutinized in the light of that material. For example, there is a very difficult criterion in this verse: The Prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the Prophet shall come to pass, then shall the Prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him. (Jeremiah, 28:9) The religion which Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him) preached is known as Islam, that is peace. When the persecution of the converts to Islam reached its peak in Makkah, Khubbab bin Arat met the Prophet (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him) who was seated with his back resting on the wall of the Ka’abah and requested him to seek Allah’s help so that the victims could get some relief. The Prophet explained briefly how the votaries of Truth were ill-treated earlier and how the level of barbarity beggared description and then he prophesied, “By God, Allah will allow this campaign for Islam to reach its point of culmination until a rider could travel from Sana’a to Hadramaut without fear except the fear of God. He might be a bit nervous thinking about the safety of his sheep when a wolf is on the prowl in the neighbourhood!” And this prophecy came true not long afterwards. Is this not a proof that he was sent by the Lord?
The New Testament has this prophecy. “When he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (St. John, 16:13) Jesus says that his followers do not have the capacity to bear more of the message (ibid., 16:12), because it is weighty. Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him) is informed in the initial stage of his ministry, “Soon shall We send to thee a weighty Message.” (Qur’an, 73:5) Almost twenty-three years later, this proclamation is made: This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (5:3) This is a proclamation that the Qur’an contains guidance unto all truth. The revelation of the Qur’an took 23 years for completion and this whole period witnessed momentous upheavals. During this long period Allah kept on telling the Prophet (Allah’s blessings and peace be with him) again and again that He proposed to complete His favour to him. “I may complete my favours to you and ye may consent to be guided.” (2:150) “(Allah wishes) to make you clean and to complete His favour to you that you may be grateful.” (5:6) “(Allah may) fulfil His favour to you and guide you on the Straight Way.” (48:2) The favour mentioned is the favour of guidance. Allah preserved the life of the Prophet in spite of several attempts on his life and did not cause him to die before completing His favour to him. In my opinion, by conveying complete guidance to the world, the Prophet has fulfilled the prophecy contained in St. John, 16:13.
The interfaith dialogue aims at fostering understanding and establishing peace in this world and, for the fulfilment of such an aim, the basic beliefs need no reassessment for any religious community. However, rejecting a true Messenger sent by God may not be the right step in the direction of salvation.