The joys of interfaith (and intra-faith) dialogue

No irony or sarcasm is meant by that title.  When it works, it really is a joy.

Last night, I participated in an interfaith dinner between local young Muslims and young Christians enrolled in a pastoral studies program at The Falls Church, a beautiful Episcopal church that happens to be right next to  one of the nexi  of Muslim life in northern Virginia, Halalco.   

An aside:  Halalco is the first modern, professionally-run Islamically themed department store–as opposed to a mom & pop convenience store or market–that I’ve encountered in the States.  How many Muslim shops do you know that have a parking lot, shopping carts, checkout aisles, barcode scanners, prepackaged halal meat and  separate departments (i.e., books, clothes, electronics)?  It really is a sign of things to come as the community comes of age.   

The dinner was organized by the Buxton Initiative (about which there is precious little info available online, alas; this church newsletter happens to show the profiles of many of the Christian participants last night) at the home of Amina Khan, who’s been actively involved in this and other interfaith initiatives in DC.

Interfaith dialogue, while noble and inspiring in principle–and as much as I enjoy it–can be a chore.  For one thing, the people you most need to reach tend to be the least likely to attend.  And you don’t really have control over who you end up talking to–I prefer to discuss doctrine and history rather than sing Kumbaya–with the result that it can be really hit or miss.  You meet a lot of good people, but just because people are nice it doesn’t mean you actually connect and learn much from each other.

The participation of Muslims in the process frankly doesn’t always help, either, as many of the Muslims floating around the interfaith dialogue circuit have yet to learn the difference between dialogue and dawah  (to say nothing of plain old disinformation in some cases). In such fora, some Muslims become spiritual Amway salesmen, incessantly hawking their wares to every person who makes the mistake of crossing their path, in the process dumbing down the conversation to the point where you start to wonder whether  it wouldn’t have been better to just hand out CAIR book packages and be on your way. 

(Personally, I believe that any Muslim who doesn’t see an important difference between the words  "kafir" and "non-Muslim", or "Jew" and "Israelite" (to say nothing of "Israeli") simply shouldn’t be allowed to do high-profile dawah, even if they’ve gone to a madrassa, have a PhD, etc.  Closedminded dawah [sic--dawah should never be closedminded] does more harm than good to the cause of Islam with intelligent, sensitive people .  You must engage with people, not talk at them.  And you have to view them as individuals, not respresentatives of some abstract category of infidels.)

Thankfully, it wasn’t like that last night.  We had a great group of thoughtful people, on both sides of the aisle.   The Muslim group was actually unusually diverse.  There was a mix of whites, desis and Arabs. Unfortunately, there were no African American Muslims present (though, for whatever it’s worth, I made plugs  for  their critical role in the development of Islam in America, both past and present).  A nice change was that most were American-born.  There was a young Shiah, a convert of a several years, a very recent convert (as in a few months ago), and even a former Qadiani.  There were hijabis and non-hijabis, dari-wallahs and clean shaven men. 

The discussion was excellent.  Both groups spoke at length about the role of prayer in both religions.  A lot of great questions were asked.  Other topics were the place of houses of worship in religious practice. 

One small surprise for me was a question whether salat (i.e., the 5 daily prayers) being performed in Arabic
means that Allah doesn’t understand other languages (which implies a partiality towards Arabs).  Obviously, salat is both "prayer" and "ritual"
while at the same time being neither, so it’s confusing to a
non-Muslim, but it’s still not a question I would’ve expected.   When
we explained the difference between duah (which can be in any language
and at any time) and salat as a prescribe ritual and spiritual exercise
in a specific language and any place, though, they got it. 

Even when you’re speaking the same language and are from the same
culture (most of us were American-born). vocabulary and implicit
cultural assumptions sometimes get in the way.   "Prayer" is no doubt misleading
as a transation for salat, but I wonder if the fact that these were Protestants
whose religious liturgy has long since been totally indigenized (i.e., translated into the local languages)
long ago, plays a role.  I wonder if a group of Catholics might have
found the idea of salat being in a foreign language less odd,
given how  Catholic churches around the world conducted Mass and other
rituals entirely in Latin until only a generation ago (i.e., the Vatican II in 1965).

Next time, though, I think we need to make sure the Muslims come
armed with specific questions about Christianity.  It’s too easy for
these sorts of events to become a long show-and-tell session for the
Mussies (who, quite understandably, have a lot on their chests these
days and are desperate to get  their version of the story out).  Then
there’s the khutbah gene with which all Muslims seems to be
born, which is only exaccerbated when the people on the other side of
the table are unfailingly polite.

Another secret to this event’s success, I
suspect, is the fact that it was low-key.  This wasn’t a high-profile
event with a bunch of VIPs or leaders.
It just was an honest exchange between normal people, far from the TV cameras or critical gaze of community leaders.  There was no need for speeches or posturing, so we could actually accomplish something.

The ex-Qadiani’s comments were intriguing as he seemed to be really overcompensating at times.  I find this  common among  Muslim activists with a controversial background who are trying to work in mainstream orgs.  Unfortunately, the only way they’re accepted as kosher by some gatekeepers in the mainstream community is if they turn on their friends and family and harshly denounce them as deviant (if not heretical).  They’re not allowed to just be Muslims who mind their own business like everybody else–they’re required to constantly prove their legitimacy by denying the Muslim-ness of others, even though the Shahadah makes no mention of other people (i.e., it is about your beliefs).   (I still remember one softspoken and bearded young Muslim student was active in his local MSA who, when I guessed
from his name and family origins in East Africa that he was of Ismaili background, launched into a Salafi jeremiad against how Ismailism was "all kufr", though I hadn’t indicated any consternation or shock at his family background.  He was quite confused when instead of nodding piously I asked "Is is really all kufr?  Nothing of any value at all?"  Then he let his guard down and admiteed, "Well, there are some really good people.  And I’ve never felt such a sense of community since."  "Perhaps not all of it is kufr then," I said.) 

Anyway, the ex-Qadiani–who was otherwise fairly knowledgeable and engaging–first got himself into trouble when he answered a student’s question about the difference between Sunnis and Shiahs by stating matter-of-factly that they were a sect that had basicly added all sorts of things onto the true Islam, etc. etc..  He didn’t get too far into his tenditious narrative, though, as several of us simutaneously  jumped in and reminded him that there were two sides to this story (I was sorely tempted to note how ironic his hardline Sunni reading was in light of his background, too).

The brother’s impolitic comment was actually very helpful, though, as it resulted in an exchange among the Muslim participants that brought to life the  diversity of the Ummah for these students.  Contrary to our instinct sometimes, a litte public disagreement is often a healthy thing (the Jewish community understands the benefit of open debate).  The fact that much of the discussion was sometimes lead by the Shiah Muslim (who was quite knowledgable and had a very sharif yet totally American manner)  surely also helped the group realize that Muslims come in a number of shapes and sizes, and that this doesn’t undermine the unity of Islam or the Ummah. 

Then, later in a side discussion with some of the students about New Age movements, I noted my discomfort with the Church of Scientology. [*]

[* I have concerns about any religious  organization that seems to operate like a for-profit business--charging its congregants ever-increasing fees for dispensing its teachings--and which is accused of  cult-like practices. 

Also, for all their invocations of spirituality and God, I find their message extremely relativistic, if not atheistic.

After all, they essentially argue that a modern person who wasn't a divinely inspired prophet (i.e., the writer L. Ron Hubbard) plumbed the depths of the world's religions, the universe, good & evil, the purpose of  life, ..., and arrived at a superior understanding of all these things than those religions' founders (the conclusion is inescapable).   He knows Christianity's "real" meaning better than Jesus,  Saint Paul or the Church; he knows the "real" meaning of Islam better than the Holy Prophet, classical commentators, the awliya, or modern Muslim scholars.   He's essentially overruling everybody--including people believed to be divinely inspired--and without even claiming divine inspiration himself. 

How can you belive in a traditional religion and simutaneously believe in this new dispensation (remember: Scientology isn't merely a philosophy or self-help system; it's a religion)?  I don't see how it's possible.]

At this, the  ex-Qadiani launched inexplicably into a conspiracy theory about Qadianis.  Now, I’m no fan of Qadianism, but I don’t take kindly to Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style rhetoric about any communty, especially in an interfaith setting.   I don’t care for Moonie beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear nonsense about them running the world, either.   

So I reminded him of the difference between critiquing beliefs you disagree with strongly and making wild accusations and gross oversimplifications against a large group of people (who in this case are widely persecuted and demonized) .   Attack the beliefs, not the people, I said.  He responded, "I know this stuff is true.  I used to be one."   Being a former membership gives you license to weave whatever fables you like, it seems.   

I happen to know a lot about this controversial and highly politicized subject (how is a topic for another, long long posting), but I didn’t think this was the time or place.  Nor am I terribly interested in explaining the intricacies of Qadianism at a forum designed to explain Islam to non-Muslims!  So I moved on.

Back to our sheep, as the French say.  One point I made a point of hammering home was how philosophically similiar we are to Jews and how for "ritual" isn’t a dirty word for us.  I noted how, like Jews and unlike Christians, Muslims believe that the old dispensation regarding the "Law" is still in effect (halakhah in Judaism; shariah in Islam). 

There are important differences, of course–Muslims are strictly forbidden alcohol, whereas Judaism not only allows it but has a fascinating holiday, Purim, where you’re expected to get inebriated  (the Hebrew Bible is quite explicit, saying one is to drink until one cannot tell the difference between Haman and the Mordechai, two starkly different figures in the Bible, which sounds like getting tanked to me)–but the underlying assumption in both faiths is that a believer must adhere to a specific set of instructions and devotional practices in their daily lives (i.e., dietary limitations, various taboos, and daily prayer rituals).

In Christian belief, however, these practices are no longer required after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, as the Holy Spirit has descended into the world and superceded the Law of Moses.  Christians believe that Christ came to "not to break the Law but to fulfill the Law", but from a Jewish/Muslim perspective the Law has been broken, as it is no longer observed, at least not as was the case in the past.

Update (2005-12-10):
It’s been brought to my attention that the link on Moonies that I included initially included, unbeknownst to me, a banner ad at the bottom of the page that led to an adult website!  Just wanted to note for the record that did not realize it was there and apologize to any readers that might have been offended.   That link has now been replaced with a safe, tame Wikipedia link. 

From now on, I’m scrolling all the way through all pages I link to!  What an embarassment…

Update (2005-12-11):
As is my wont, I’ve made some stylistic changes and moved things around a bit to make it flow better.  And I’ll probably make more.

  • Zarine

    Hi Svend, Assalamualaikkum,
    I have so far only read a few paragraphs. But, Insha Allah I will come back and read the whole post when I have more time. Can you please explain what the difference between Kafir and non-Muslim is? I realise that the former has a pejorative sense to it.

  • Svend White

    Salaams, Zarine
    Thanks for the feedback (and the link to the Arundhati Roy interview).
    Perhaps I’m not the best person to explain these differences, but I’ll try.
    “Non-Muslim” is an objective, matter-of-fact description of somebody who is not a Muslim. It makes no assumptions about them beyond what is objectively known (i.e., that they’re not Muslims). It is not inherently pejorative.
    “Kafir” is complex concept that is loaded with meanings in Islamic thought and all sorts of overtones in Muslim culture. Depending on the circumstance, it can mean non-Muslim, infidel, enemy, ingrate (as showing ingratitude for Allah’s mercy by rejecting Him), and so on. The etymological meaning is “one who conceals or covers” the truth, if memory serves.
    First and foremost, it is a spiritual category, a description of people’s hearts which only Allah can really judge rather than some label that should be thrown around carelessly at all non-Muslims. “Kafir” is not a straightforward fact, like eye color, height, race, etc.. It’s sort of like “Mu’min” (which I’d translate roughly as a true believer).
    Also, I’m not sure that kafirs are always non-Muslim, at least in the sense of being ungrateful or rejecting Allah’s guidance.
    Maybe a practical example will help: If a neighbor always mean and cold towards everybody in the neighborhood, I can say with a certain amount of certainty that he is “unfriendly”.
    I cannot say he is a “bad person”. I don’t know that, even if I have some evidence that might support that suspicion. He could be a saint for all I know.
    An example from the Holy Prophet’s life: According to many commentators, his uncle Abu Talib never took Shahadah, yet he protected the Prophet and did many good things. He was most certainly not a “kafir” in the literal sense of the word (his aid was crucial in the Prophet’s message *not* being “concealed” or censored), and I find it hard to see how one could say he was one in most other figurative senses of the word, either.
    That’s what I’m trying to get at. There’s a tendency among Muslims to make all sorts of assumptions about non-Muslims that they have no right to make, and it all begins with calling them “kafirs”, I think. Personally, I’d like to see Muslims say “ghair-Muslim” (non-Muslim). I think it’s done in Urdu (i.e., “ghair-Musulman”).
    I don’t think Muslims who see all non-Muslims as evil infidels (which is what is implied by “kafir”) should be doing dawah. Unfortunately, those are often the guys who are, though.
    While I’m at it…
    RE: The Israelite/Jew/Israeli distinction
    Israelite = member of a chosen people mentioned in the Bible and Quran that at times sinned and was punished by God in the Bible and Quran (though it was also forgiven repeatedly–peolple always forget that the story of the erring Israelites is also a story of redemption and forgiveness).
    Israeli = a citizen of the nation of Israel which is at war (in various undeclared ways) with the Palestinians; not all Israelis support this war, however.
    Jew = somebody who believes in God, practices a religion very similiar to Islam, and is a member of the Ahl Kitab; modern Jews are most certainly not Israelites and most aren’t Israelis
    This isn’t rocket science, but contemporary Islamist discourse so consistently misapplies these basic terms and concepts concerning non-Muslims that many Muslims are impaired in their ability to look at members of other religions as normal people. They’re just examples of these abstract categories (not unlike how a lot of Americans view Muslims these days).

  • Zarine

    Svend, Assalamualaikkum,
    Many thanks for the explanation. It is clear now.
    I am interested in inter-faith dialogue, not so much on theological issues, but on social and political issues. I think we need more dialogue in India. I am in favour of more personal/social interactions among people of different faiths.


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