Interfaith Dialogue: What It Is and What It Is Not

Interfaith Dialogue: What It Is and What It Is Not June 26, 2017

interfaith symbols-835892_1280Before we get into what the interfaith dialogue entails, let me start by making it clear what interfaith dialogue is NOT about. Interfaith dialogue is not intended for converting people to your faith!

This is a question that so many people, Muslims, and people of other faiths have asked me when I invite them to be part of the interfaith dialogue in their communities. They sometimes ask, “how many people have you converted to Islam in your years of working on interfaith issues?

My answer surprises some while disappointing others. I have converted exactly zero people to Islam as an interfaith worker. I have very likely changed the perception of Islam and Muslims for thousands of people, but have not ‘converted’ anyone. Would you consider this a ‘failure’? I certainly don’t feel it that way, simply because that is not the objective of interfaith dialogue.

What else is interfaith dialogue NOT about?

  1. It is not about telling who is right and who is wrong.
  2. It is not about agreeing or accepting everything about the other faith traditions (but it does involve respecting others’ views despite the disagreements. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree but in a civil manner).

Objectives of interfaith dialogue:

interfaith Hope-2055651_640Interfaith dialogue is very much about promoting understanding between people of various faith traditions to establish goodwill, harmony and peace in our communities. It is as much about listening to what others have to say about their faith as it is about us talking about your faith. In fact it is much more about doing than it is about talking (and listening). It is about putting your faith in action.

And yes, blogging on Patheos, especially when it is across multiple channels, is part of interfaith dialogue!

Why engage in Interfaith Dialogue:

interfaith peace-1183282_640Religion has been used to divide people and blamed for violence throughout the history. Religion has been used to create fear and hate between people of various faith. Hate speeches and hate crimes, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been on the rise. Attacks on places of worship including Hindu and Sikh temples have been reported with increasing frequency. There is an information gap between those who know, and those who are seeking it, as the polls quoted above have shown.

The interfaith community believes strongly that the religion can actually bring people together and serve as a strong influence to unite people rather than divide, and bring about world peace.

Hans Küng, a Swiss catholic priest and a theologian has long emphasized the interconnection between religion, peace and the need for interfaith dialogue and understanding, and in one of his papers eloquently summarizes that need as follows:[1]

No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.

The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, adopted at the Council of Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993, acknowledged the misuse of religion and laid out the principles of global ethics.[2] Time and again we see leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate, and xenophobia – even inspire and legitimize violent and bloody conflicts. Religion often is misused for purely power political goals, including war. We are filled with disgust. We condemn these blights and declare that they need not be. An ethic already exists within the religious teachings of the world which can counter the global distress.

It further offered principles of global ethic necessary to bring about peace and justice to the world communities. They included:

  • Every human must be treated humanely.
  • Golden rule- do unto others what you wish for yourself.
  • Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
  • Culture of tolerance. Life of honesty/truthfulness.
  • Love: Respect/love one another.
  • Culture of Equal rights and partnership between men and women.

Islam in the west:

Muslims, Islam and its teachings have come under the spotlight, especially after the geopolitical events of the past sixteen years, and the acts of terrorism by groups such as Boko Haram and the so-called ISIS. Despite this newfound fame, the teachings of Islam and the Holy Quran remain arcane.

Many polls in the USA have consistently shown that most Americans view Muslims and Islam negatively. Muslims scored the lowest points (40% favorable) in a Pew research study, compared to the Jews (63%) and Catholics (62%)[3]. Zogby Associates showed similar results. According to their poll, favorable attitudes towards Muslims continued to decline __from 43% in 2010 to 32% in 2014 for Arabs; and from 35% in 2010 to 27% in 2014 for Muslims.[4]

Ironically, most people who have a negative opinion on the teachings of the Quran (as well as the Bible) have actually not read them cover-to-cover themselves and their source of information is often secondhand, and frequently taken out of context. This was confirmed by the same study showing that most Americans (64% of the participants) “do not know enough about Islam and Muslims”.

Holy Qur’an: My inspiration for interfaith dialogue

Long before the interfaith movement, the Quran laid down the basic principle for Muslims as to how they should approach the interfaith dialogue- with Jews and Christians in the following verse.

Do not argue with the people of the book except in the best of manners-except for those wicked amongst them, and say’ we acknowledge what was revealed to us (meaning the Quran) and in what was revealed to you (meaning the Torah and the Gospel); our God and your God is the same. To Him we peacefully submit. 29:46

 I found at least two take-home messages within this verse

  1. When we enter into a dialogue, we should do this in the best of manners.
  2. Focus on drawing the commonalities (We worship the same Lord and that we believe in the Scriptures).

It is also important to point out that it does not ask the Muslims to tell others who is right and wrong or who is superior and who is not. Indeed these principles can lay a strong foundation to start interfaith dialogue.

Being on the best mannerism is not limited to interaction with Jews and Christians only.

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner. 16: 125

 Another verse that I frequently quote refers to people as one family with common parents.

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honored among you in the sight of Allah is (the one) most righteous (best in conduct)…. 49:13

 The above verse essentially teaches us that:

  1. The humankind belongs to one (large) family.
  2. We are created “different” so that we may get to know each other, not despise each other.
  3. We gain higher status in the eye of God when we are on our best behavior, by engaging in good deeds.

 Forms of interfaith dialogue: Adapted from a Vatican paper.[5]

  1. The Dialogue of Life: People strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows and the human experience. This is mostly secular experience. Examples include interfaith picnics and enjoying sporting events together.
  2. Dialogue of Action: working together for the benefit of all. Examples include participating in peace walks and vigils, working in homeless shelters, free health clinics and food drives/food banks.
  3. The Dialogue of Theological Exchange: Dialogue to deepen understanding and appreciate each other’s doctrinal beliefs and spiritual values. This is a deeper form of dialogue, often involving clergy as well as other scholars.
  4. Religious Experience: People sharing their spiritual perspectives and rituals and traditions. Examples include observing Shabbat services, Friday Muslim prayers, Sunday services and visiting Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh temples, to name a few.

Question to my readers:

Regardless of your views on the merits of conversion, can you engage in a meaningful interfaith dialogue when your primary aim is to convert others?

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 [1] Hans Küng, Islam, Past Present & Future (Oxford: One world Publications, 2007), p. xxiii

[2] Declaration Towards a Global Ethic. Parliament of World’s Religions, September 1993, Chicago, USA

[3] Pew Research Center “How Americans feel about religious groups”.   July 16, 2014.

[4] Arab American institute. American Attitude towards Arabs and Muslims. July 29, 2014

[5] Vatican: Dialogue and Mission and Dialogue and Proclamation. See DM, nos. 28-35; DP, no. 42. See Gioia (ed.), Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church, 566-579, 608-642.


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