‘Dialogue is always relevant’

In view of the present Muslim-Christian dialogue initiated by the letter â??A Common Word between Us and You,â?? sent last October by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars to Pope Benedict and other leaders of Christian churches,

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In view of the present Muslim-Christian dialogue initiated by the letter â??A Common Word between Us and You,â?? sent last October by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars to Pope Benedict and other leaders of Christian churches,

What is your opinion about the much talked about Muslim-Christian Dialogue? What is its relevance and scope?
M. Abdul Haq Ansari: We should welcome the dialogue provided it is aimed at and meant for solving the common problems faced by both communities, Muslims and Christians. The exercise may be useful for resolving misunderstandings emanating from misinformation. However, the purpose of any such dialogue should be ascertained before engaging in the exercise. One cannot decide about participation in any dialogue before knowing its intent and content and without understanding the objects that are to be achieved.
Muhammad Hussain Zulqarnain: Muslim Christian dialogue has a long history and it has been in practice since the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be with him. In compliance of the Divine instruction, ”Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)(Aal ‘Imran 3:64), he initiated this dialogue with Christians and Jews on those lines, verbally as well as through letters he wrote to several rulers and other prominent persons of his time. The presentation of Ja’far bin Abi Talib in the court of the Christian King Negus of Ethiopia and entertaining a Christian delegation of Najran in the Prophet’s mosque (including allowing them to pray there according to their rites), are examples of this behaviour. This dialogue has never stopped since and continues to be undertaken in different forms till this day.
The Christian (Catholic) initiative of inter-religious talks is a recent phenomenon dating back to just the mid sixties of the last century. During the second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Catholics were encouraged to have positive relationship with followers of other religions, particularly with Jews and Muslims. It was followed by “the World Day of Prayer for Peace” held in Assisi on October 27, 1986. In 1988 the Global Forum of Spiritual and Political Leaders’ conference was held in Oxford, England. In 1993 in Chicago, USA, followed what was called the second Parliament of the World Religions in which participated some three hundred religious leaders, politicians and scientists from many parts of the world. I too happened to be one of the participants of this event. It will be interesting to note that the first parliament of this name was held exactly hundred years earlier in the same city. The Parliament has since, after 1993, met again in South Africa and Spain. In addition, several more events of this nature have taken place in different parts of the world.
You may be talking about the letter addressed to the Christian clergy by a group of Muslims belonging to different ‘sects’ as well as schools of thought on occasion of the last Eidul Fitr inviting them to the same “common word between us and them”. It was initiated by a Jordanian organisation, Royal Academy of The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, under the patronage of King Abdullah II. While one can argue whether or not the 138 signatories of this letter constitute the ijma (consensusof the Ummahor about the motives of the Jordanian king in patronising the initiative, most of us will agree that the wordings and the content of the letter appear to be in agreement with the Islamic point of view. The letter has by and large received a resounding welcome among the Christian clergy and the theological faculty particularly in the West, though not from their politicians. Most of them have committed to work for the cause of bringing the followers of the two faiths closer in the interest of not only the worldly peace but also in compliance of their religious obligation. This positive response from the Christians itself may raise some eyebrows leading to suspicions, but then no initiative can be taken, if we become so sensitive.
Dialogue is always relevant. Human nature demands that we talk to each other and try to settle our differences through dialogue instead of using force. But it does not mean that we can ever reach a stage when there will be no differences and all humans will have just one faith or worldview. Difference is also in the nature of humans. Holders of any view believe that the truth lies with them (why else would they hold that view?). It’s the dialogue that helps each differing group to contemplate upon and examine its beliefs and change its position, if convinced of the truth of its opponent. Christians and Muslims are no exception to this phenomenon. The initiative by the 138 Muslims is equally relevant in view of the continuous efforts on the part of people with vested interests to create misunderstanding and enmity between followers of the two faiths.
The scope of dialogue is almost unlimited. Once in practice in an honest and sincere manner it can open doors of mutual understanding and cooperation in virtually every field of human endeavour, not just the faith.
 
Muslims are passing through a period of difficulties and weaknesses. Christians are considered a well-organised people. Will the dialogue not be a dialogue of two unequals?
MAHA: It is true that the Christians dominate the world today and their nations are using this dominance and power to subjugate Muslims in many parts of the world. If the dialogue is aimed at continuing and misusing this dominance then Muslims should keep this process at bay. But if it is aimed at solving problems faced by both the communities or resolving misunderstandings between them or any other mutually beneficial issue, it is welcome. In case any party intends to take undue benefit of its superiority by overt or covert manner the purpose of the exercise will be vitiated.
MHZ: Even if one assumes the description of the two communities to be true, who said that unequals cannot talk or have dialogue with each other?  Dialogue is not wrestling. In a dialogue your main concern is to win the person with the power of your reasoning. And to do that you don’t have to be equal to your target person/group in all respects.
Once we start doing that on different levels, organisation and coordination will follow. Moreover, who says Christians have absolutely no difficulties or weaknesses? Take for example, the crisis in their family relations; the whole institution is almost at the verge of collapse. The ever declining trend of practising their faith even symbolically, the increasing incidences of immorality and corruption in the clergy, the menacing of materialism, etc. are just a few issues their faith leaders are struggling with and seem to be losing the battle and making ‘adjustments’. Believe it or not, according to a survey reported by Time magazine, 80% of the Christians polled picked ‘anti-homosexual’ as a negative adjective describing Christianity today! (Time, October 2, 2007).
It presents to us an opportunity to show the way not just in theory but also through live models.
 
What is the evangelical mission of the Christians? Does it pose any threat to the practitioners of other religions, especially Islam?
MAHA: Evangelists are a Christian sect with specific beliefs. They are committed to the propagation of Christianity. Obviously they have the right to propagate their religion. It is like the right of followers of any other religion to propagate their beliefs. But the problem arises when any sect or group tries to utilise force and unfair means for the purpose. Evangelists are nowadays practising the same ghastly procedure at many parts of the world. What is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan or how they are trying to use force against Iran? This situation is a threat to the world peace and humanity at large.
It is an irony that the nations who are using undesirable means to subjugate others for their own religious, political and economic vested interests are painting Islam as a threat. Such forces are active in America and Israel and are real threats to the well beings of mankind. See what is happening in Gaza Strip.
It is very painful that these days religion is being utilised for petty sectarian purposes dismantling all legal and moral fabrics. This is making the world we live in a hell. It is sad that this is happening in the name of religion. This is good neither for Christianity nor for any other religion.
MHZ: If by evangelical mission you mean the Christians’ missionary programme and not just the Evangelicalism, I would say that Christians’ missionary work is a well-organised and well supported effort aimed at converting people of other faiths to Christianity. Its magnitude is unimaginable. According to their own sources it covers every nook and corner of the world today. Resources are not their problem. They have plenty of funding as well as manpower to execute their plans. A number of very influential governments back them with financial and logistic support. They sometimes publish estimates of their available resources, which may not be very accurate, but are enough to give you an idea of its volume. They have developed and put in place an efficient system of collecting and channellising support from grassroots to elite levels. They have high ambitions. The “10/40 Window” project, for example, aims to evangelise almost all population falling between latitude 10 and 40 degrees north of Equator. Barring Indonesia and Malaysia all Muslim countries happen to fall in this region. So do the Hindu and Buddhist populations.
Some of the multi-national evangelical organisations have budgets exceeding budgets of several countries. They own fleets of aircrafts, airports, helipads, ships, hundreds of satellite channels, radio stations, magazines, newspapers … you just think about it. They have full-fledged universities, higher institutes, colleges and schools – virtually in every city of the world. One of their universities, Columbia International University of South Carolina in the US, has “wiping out Islam” from the face of the earth, as its declared mission.
 
Do you think the Christian evangelical mission will affect the Muslim-Christian Dialogue?
MAHA: To be sure, Christian evangelical mission is affecting Muslim-Christian relations. Proper dialogue between the two communities may change the situation. Much will depend upon the persons engaging in the dialogue, its timing and place. If approached properly, ill-intentioned evangelists may be sidetracked. Only then this process will be useful. I have full faith in the leaders of both the religions as they are mature enough to understand what should be done and what should be avoided and guarded against. Take the case of our country. Both Muslims and Christians are facing threats from the forces of Hindutva. Muslims and Christians can make a common cause for suitably defending their legal, moral, religious and political right of respectable existence in this plural society.
MHZ: It is only natural. As Muslims we do not object to the mission itself. Each faith group should have the right to propagate what it thinks right, provided the means that are employed are also fair. But, unfortunately, what is happening is the Christian evangelical mission uses all sorts of unjust methods to achieve their objective. One of the most spectacular characteristics of the Christian mission, for instance, is its exploitation of poverty, ignorance, diseases and natural calamities to achieve their objective. And this is not limited to Muslims but equally applies to other faiths as well, as there is hardly any faith group that does not suffer from such problems. Once we see this happening and that it is not being addressed in an appropriate manner, those engaged in the dialogue become less enthusiastic. They start wondering if the exercise is worth pursuing.
What, in your view, are the common things which can bring Muslims and Christians closer to each other and what are the points which make reconciliation difficult?
MAHA: A common cause I cited is the need to safeguard our mutual right of respectable existence, against the designs of the forces that try to annihilate and suppress both of us. If there is any hidden agenda of any party in the dialogue to get undue advantage or if there is any insincerity in the process, the dialogue would become meaningless, rather harmful.
MHZ: In my opinion both need to understand that none of them can be eliminated from the planet, whether by preaching or by use of force. They have to share this earth and it’s up to them to decide whether they are going to live here in peace or in continuous strife. Both have to agree upon some common minimum programme and also the red lines that should not be crossed in any case. The letter sent by Muslims does propose several of such measures. More can be added to that, like respecting what each of the group considers sacred or sacrosanct. Muslims have very clear injunctions on this matter; they simply cannot violate the sanctity of even false gods or abuse them so that their worshippers do not in retaliation act something similar. As for the sacred personalities of Christianity, Muslims revere them even more than the Christians themselves although do not exaggerate to the extent of worshipping them. The pretext of freedom of expression cannot justify blasphemy. There isn’t, nor can there be, an absolute freedom of expression for any person.
In the present charged scenario what is your message to the world?
MAHA: Christians, while propagating their religion, should base their efforts on arguments and persuasions. They should desist from using force. Wrong methods of threatening and suppressing others should be done away with. As for Islam, it does not use force for propagation. The opposite view about Islam has been created through propaganda aimed at tarnishing its image. It is the duty of all Muslims including our journalists to tell the world about the position of Islam on the issue. Islam’s disapproval of using force is very categorical and unconditional. The misinformation about Islam should be cleared at the earliest.
Muslims around the world have been subjected to severe disadvantageous position. The forces of darkness are threatening the lives, properties, self-respect and religion of the Muslims. This is what western powers are engaged in especially for the last several years. Concerted efforts should be made by Muslims as well as all positive thinking people to correct the situation.
I am not painting a dark picture of future. I have faith that truth will ultimately prevail and the forces of darkness will themselves go into oblivion.
MHZ: We need to dis-charge the atmosphere. And to do this we will have to look into the causes. I think the basic reason for tension is the feeling of injustice among some groups. This feeling has to be addressed and the injustices removed. Every person or group should feel secure and protected by the civil society without discrimination.
It is in the interest of every one. I am happy to note that there are so many sensible persons (Christians as well Jews in the west and in Israel itself) who are standing up to proclaim this principle of justice. They are speaking out that what George W Bush is doing in the name of Christianity is totally wrong. He claims to be ‘inspired by God’ for all his actions, which most of his own countrymen and fellows in faith refuse to accept as genuine. But it is surprising that in spite of this surge in public opinion against him and his band of neo-cons, he is least bothered, simply because the flaws in the system allow him to continue on his chosen path. However, no person or group should have the license to endanger the world peace for his or its selfish aims. The so-called civil society must rise against such a state of affairs in the interest of world peace. The Qur’an has very aptly warned against allowing such a situation proliferate which will spare neither the oppressor nor the oppressed: “And fear tumult or oppression, which affecteth not in particular (only) those of you who do wrong: and know that Allah is strict in punishment.” (8:25)