Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religious groups in our world. According to the Pew Research Center Report, the number of Muslims worldwide will be "nearly as numerous as Christians" by 2050. The study also points to the interesting statistic that for the first time in history, the number of Christians and Muslims will be 2.9 billion and 2.8 billion respectively. In view of this, interfaith relations assume an added significance. Christians and Muslims have a duty to work toward peace and betterment of humanity through a shared framework. It is imperative that the mainstream leadership take an active role in promoting positive relations that are based on the universal principles of these two world religions.
The extremely heinous acts committed by “Muslim” terrorist groups like ISIS are a betrayal of Islamic teachings, in the same way the genocide of Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) by “Christian” terrorists is a betrayal of Christian teachings; or the violence against Christians and Muslims in India by “Hindu” terrorists is a betrayal of Hinduism; or the violence against the Rohingiya Muslims in Burma by “Buddhist” terrorists is a betrayal of Buddhism. These horrendous acts should not be allowed to deflate the desire and passion among mainstream followers of all religions to continue to build relationships toward making this world safe for our future generations.
As I noted in my earlier blog, the Christian-Muslim Dialogue sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Islamic Center of Minnesota recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dr. Jay Rock and Dr. Jamal Badawi were the keynote speakers at this celebration. Dr. Badawi's framework for Muslim-Christian relations from a Muslim perspective was quite compelling. I would like to summarize that framework, quoting from his world renowned research paper, which is considered a mainstream thesis.
1. Faith in One Universal God (Allah in Arabic language): Islam is founded on the belief that there is only one God, who is the universal Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher of all. Being the sole creator of all humankind precludes any notion of multiple, competing creators, each marshalling his creation against the other “gods” and their creation. Allah is One and is impartial toward His creation. He provides for all, including those who reject faith in Him, or even those who defy Him. He cares for the well being of all and gives them ample opportunity to repent to Him and end the state of separateness suffered by those who reject Him or are unmindful of Him. This belief implies that all humans are equal before Allah in terms of their humanity, irrespective of their particular beliefs. Only Allah is the ultimate judge of any person’s “theological correctness.” No human should be oppressed or mistreated by other fellow humans because of a perceived “theological incorrectness.”
2. Unity and universality of the core teachings of all prophets: That core message is peace in submission to Allah; literally Islam. According to the Qur’an, a Muslim must accept, revere and believe in all the prophets of Allah, without discrimination. They all represent one brotherhood of faith extending vertically to include many generations and horizontally to embrace all humanity. In the Qur’an we read: “ …we [Muslims] make no distinction between any of His messengers [i.e. God’s messengers]” (2:285). We read also: “ Behold, We have revealed to you [O Muhammad] as We revealed to Noah and all the prophets after him…” (4: 163). Still in another verse we read: “ In matters of faith, He [God] has ordained for you that which He had enjoined upon Abraham, Moses and Jesus: steadfastly uphold the [true] faith and make no divisions therein…” (42:13). These Qur’anic texts preclude the notion of narrow partisanship that may lead to hatred or even violence against communities who perceive themselves as followers of other prophets.
3. Universal Human dignity: The Qur’an gives various reasons why each human being must be honored and dignified on account being human irrespective of his or her chosen beliefs. Such honor is symbolized by the way the Qur’an describes Allah’s creation of the human in the best of molds and commanding the angels to bow down in respect to Adam. The Qur’an describes the human as the trustee of Allah on earth. Allah created everything on earth and in the heavens for the benefit of the human race. Sanctity of human life is affirmed in the Qur’an “ Nor take life, which God has made sacred, except for just cause…” (17:33). The Qur’an confirms God’s revelation to previous prophets that “…if anyone slays a human being, unless it be [punishment] for murder, or for spreading mischief on earth, it shall be as though he had slain all humankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all humankind” [5:32]. Beyond sanctity of life, In the Qur’an we read: “Indeed We [God] have conferred dignity on the children of Adam…” [17:70]. It is noted that this verse is inclusive of all humans irrespective of their religions or even their belief in God. Rejection of belief in God will surely have consequences in the afterlife. However, it is up to God to determine these consequences. Such future determination has no bearing on the respect of the humanity of every person in this life. After all, the human is a free agent, and as such each is individually responsible before God for his/her belief and moral choices. A person can be held accountable in this life only if such a moral choice infringes on the rights of individual or society such as the commission of crimes or acts of aggression. In other words, no human is entitled to dehumanize or punish another on the sole ground that the later is following a different religion or no religion at all. This value implies that peaceful co-existence among followers of all religions and respecting their humanity is not only possible, but also mandated in the Qur’an.
4. Universal justice: The Arabic term for justice is “Adl” means “to be in a state of equilibrium, to be balanced.” That balance is inherent in the cosmic order and ecology as much as it is inherent in spiritual and ethical values. The Qur’an warns against disturbing that balance. Within that broad context, we can examine the concept of justice as it relates to human relationships based on Islam’s primary sources. Briefly, that concept has the following characteristics:
a. Justice is not mere “political correctness” or something to be pursued exclusively, for worldly gain. For the believer, it is a divine command.
b. Justice is at the heart of prophetic teachings.
c. Justice is a universal concept that should be observed without nepotism, even with the “enemy”:
“O you who believe! Stand out for justice, as witnesses to Allah, and even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be [against] rich or poor…” 4:134
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety and fear Allah, for Allah is well acquainted with all that you do.” 5:8
The above concept of universal justice relates to peace in at least two ways:
- It is inconceivable to secure genuine lasting peace without justice. In fact, doing justice is a prerequisite to peace.
- To harm, persecute or fight against any person on account of his/her religious convictions is one of the worst forms of injustice, which is condemned in the primary sources of Islam.
5. Universal human brotherhood: Addressing the entire human race, the Qur’an states: “ O humankind! We [Allah] have created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous [or Allah-conscious] of you. Surely, Allah is all-knowing, all-aware” [49:13]. It must be noted that this verse does not address Muslims exclusively, but begins with the inclusive address “O humankind”, an address that embraces all. It reminds humanity that they belong to one family, with the same set of parents, a diverse family as it may be. This is a reminder that diversity in unity and unity within diversity are possible. Humanity is like a bouquet of flowers, in which each flower is beautiful in its own right, yet the combination of all flowers and the rich diversity of their colors is more beautiful. This sweeping statement in the Qur’an about broad human brotherhood is a profound basis for peace for and among all.
6. Acceptance of plurality in human societies: While the notion of plurality may appear to be as a relatively new concept, it is not new to those who are familiar with the Qur’an. The Qur’an is quite explicit in reminding all that if God willed, he would have made of all mankind one nation [5:48; 11:118]. Likewise, the Qur’an states that had it been God’s will, He would have made all people believer [10:99]. This means that forcing people to believe in God runs against His decree of free will, which includes the fact that some will reject Him. The ultimate reward or punishment for accepting or rejecting belief in God is deferred until the Day of Judgment. This value inculcates the attitude of being non-judgmental and accepting of people as they are, human beings entitled to choose, who are answerable to their Creator. Acceptance of plurality does not mean accepting the plurality of ultimate truths, nor does it preclude sharing one’s faith with others and even inviting them to it. Plurality means peaceful co-existence with those who hold differing beliefs and convictions.
7. Prohibition of compulsion in faith: Sharing or propagating faith is not the same as compulsion in religion. The Qur’an makes it a duty on believers to communicate the message of Islam to fellow humans and to be witnesses to humankind: “And thus We [Allah] made of you [O Muslims] a justly balanced community that you might bear witness [to the truth] to humankind and the Apostle might bear witness over you…” [2:143]. Being witnesses for Allah includes both witnessing through righteous deeds and sharing what one believes is the truth, which is beneficial to humankind. Some communities use the term “conversion” to designate that later form of witnessing. The Qur’anic term for such sharing is “Da`wah”, which means, literally, invitation. The term itself means that the invitee has every right to accept or reject that “invitation.” Compulsion, threats, bribery, deception, manipulation and exploitation of the invitee’s vulnerability [such as hunger or illness] are inconsistent with the notion of “invitation”. The Qur’an gives guidance on how to invite others to Islam. Invitation should be with wisdom and in the most gracious way: “Invite [all humankind] to the path of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the most kindly manner, for, indeed, your Lord knows best as to who strays from His path, and best who are the right-guided” [16:125]. In numerous verses in the Qur’an compulsion in religion is forbidden “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” [2:256], “And so [O Prophet], exhort them; your task is only to exhort. You cannot compel them [to believe]. As for one who turns away, being bent on denying the truth, him/her will God cause the greatest suffering [in the life to come]. For verily, unto Us will be their return, and verily, it is for Us to call them to account.” [88:21-26], “Had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained faith, will you then compel people, against their will, to believe?” [10:99]. The Qur’an does not prescribe any punishment for rejecting the “invitation” to accept Islam “But if they turn away [from accepting Allah’s message, then know that] We have not sent you to be their keeper. Your duty is only to convey [the message]” [42:48].
8. Universal Mercy: The essence of Islam and its prophet’s mission is summed up in the following verse “And [thus, O Muhammad], We have not sent you, but as mercy to all the worlds” [21:107]. To remove any particularization of this mercy, the Prophet Muhammad [P] explained that mercy is not being merciful to one’s companion but merciful to all. He also explained “He who not merciful to others, will not be treated mercifully.” It is obvious that Muslims are not the only dwellers of the earth. Hence the command to be merciful applies to all. In fact mercy applies as well to animals and other creatures of Allah. A logical fruit of this attitude of mercy is to love humankind as persons and fellow honored creatures of Allah, while dissociating oneself from their erroneous beliefs or even rejection of Allah. This love finds its greatest form by loving good and guidance for them. This does not mean loving their wrongdoing or their rejection of faith in Allah. It is the love of their guidance and well-being in this life and in the life to come.
9. Universal peaceful co-existence: The basic rule governing the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is that of peaceful co-existence, justice and compassion. The following two verses are key verses that embody that general rule: “As for such [non-Muslims] who do not fight you on account of [your] faith, or drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness [also love and respect] and to deal with them with equity, for God loves those who act equitably. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands or aid [others] in driving you forth. As for those, from among you, who turn towards them for alliance, it is they who are wrongdoers” [60:8-9]. This verse makes it a Muslim’s duty to treat peacefully co-existing persons with equity [Qist] and [Birr]. The term Birr and its derivatives are the same expressions used in the Qur’an and Hadeeth to refer to one’s relationship with his/her parents. Such relationship is more than kindness, since it includes also love and respect. Many English translation of the Qur’an have translated this Qur’anic term as kindness, a translation that falls short of the richer meaning of the original Arabic term. To ameliorate this problem, the bracketed statement [also love and respect] was added above. The term “Qist” has been translated as “justice”. Justice, however, is closest to another Arabic “`Adl”. `Adl, however refers to giving the other his/her rights, no less and no more. Other scholars argue that the Qur’anic term “Qist” means going beyond justice by giving more than what is due to others.
10. Peaceful dialogue, especially with the “People of the Book”: All of the above nine principles apply to all non-Muslims. The Qur’an accords the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] a special position. The very term to designate them distinguishes them from others such as idolatrous Arabs [98:1]. It is a complimentary title as it acknowledges that, like Muslims, their faiths are based on revealed books or scriptures. In its family and dietary laws, the Qur’an gives a special consideration to the “People of the Book”. For example, a Muslim male may marry a believing Jewish or Christian woman [5:5]. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims to engage in peaceful dialogue with Jews and Christians: “ Say [O Muslims], O People of the Book! Come to a common term which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to none beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lord beside Allah, and if they turn away, then say: bear witness that we submit ourselves unto Him” [3:64]. It may be noted that “turning away” from this invitation is not presented as a punishable offence in this life and that the consequence of rejection is to simply testify Muslims’ submission to Allah. Another verse in the Qur’an encourages peaceful dialogue and invites all to build upon the common ground between Muslims and the People of the Book. The Qur’an instructs Muslims: “And do not argue with the People of Book except in a most kindly manner, except for those of them who are bent on evildoing, and say: ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which has come down to you; our Lord and yours is One and it is to Him that we [all] submit 0ourselves’”. [29:46] Not only do Muslims, Christians, and Jews share belief in the One God and divine revelation, they also share belief in human responsibility, consequences of good and evil deeds, moral teachings and other values such as love, peace and justice.
It may be concluded that the ten values and principles above represent a solid foundation for a peaceful relationship and co-existence with all, irrespective of their religious choices.
Minnesota based Islamic Resource Group (IRG) is an excellent local resource for interfaith activities. If you are interested in interfaith dialogue please feel free to reach out to IRG at www.irgmn.org