By Saqib Akber

Historical background

A lot is being said on the need of holding dialogue in the world for some time now. Samuel Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations has given a new impetus to this realization and as a result a series of dialogues and discussions among different religions and different sects have started and further developments are underway in this respect.

 Some people believe that it all began from Chicago in 1893 in modern history. Sara Reef and C. Eduardo Vargas Toro have mentioned the same point in one of their scholarly article titled ‘The Importance and purpose of Interfaith Dialogue in Global Affairs’. They have said: Throughout the history of mankind religion has played an important part in politics and international relations. In 1893 during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the world witnessed not only the birth of the Ferris wheel, but also the birth of interreligious dialogue. A formal meeting during that Chicago Fair brought together religious leaders and theologians from different faiths marking the beginning of global interreligious dialogue. This first “Parliament of the World’s Religions” set the foundation for discourse and cooperation among different faiths…

However, in my opinion, this is not a new trend as dialogues and discussions among different faiths and denominations have been going on in the past as well. Rather, new religions and sects have emerged as a result of holding dialogues and debates. If we take a look at the history of dialogue, it can provide help to keep this occurrence on the right track in today’s world because history is witness that a particular conversation which started as part of a dialogue had on various occasions ended on a very sad and painful note. Even in today’s world, dialogue is used as a cover to achieve certain objectives which are not part of the discussions in the first place.

As far as Muslims are concerned, their history of dialogue has witnessed several ups and downs. Inter-faith dialogue had started during the life of Prophet of Islam (PBUH). Mīthāq al-Madīnah (The Charter of Madina), which was drafted by the Hoy Prophet (PBUH) shortly after his arrival at Medina (or Yathrib) following the Hijra (migration) from Mecca, was the result of a constructive dialogue. Apart from Muslims, the people who belonged to the tribes of Aws and Khazraj and had not embraced Islam yet were also part of this constitution. Jews of Madina were signatory to this charter as well.  

Later, when the Muslims had become a force to be reckoned with in the Arabian Peninsula, the following verse was revealed:

“Say O Muhammad (PBUH) O people of the scripture (Jews and Christians)! Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but Allah (Alone) and that we associate no portions with them, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides Allah.” (3:64)

This verse not only calls for holding dialogue but also highlights the essence of it. The verse explains that a dialogue should not be held to establish supremacy over the other. In other words, it has been clarified that a dialogue will cease to be a dialogue when its objective becomes to establish one’s hegemony over others.

Painful history of dialogue

It is unfortunate that ultimately Muslims themselves deviated from the above mentioned principle when dialogue was held within different groups of the Ummah in the past. We need to go through the pages of history in order to know the end result of the debate which was held between Mu'tazilites and Ash'arites. Ilm al Kalam (science of scholastic theology), which actually started to hold debate and dialogue with each other to discuss the fundamental Islamic beliefs and doctrines, resulted in bloody conflicts. The matter went beyond bloodshed and declaring others as unbelievers and sinful. There is no end to this gory and dangerous sequence of events. Today, those who blame others of being involved in sinful and impious activities and even do not hesitate to charge people with infidelity and apostasy are in reality the heirs of this painful and bloody history. Would it be realized that history is to be studied to learn lesson, not to blindly follow and accept someone’s beliefs and thoughts.

If we take lessons from such historical events, then the present day dialogue will not only stay on the right course, but it can also not be used by today’s ruling elite to accomplish their ulterior motives as was done by the past rulers. It is necessary that the serious-minded participants of the dialogue remain perceptive and sensitive and keep an eye on the symptoms that appear when a dialogue deviates from its established course.

Many people have tried to talk about the obstacles hindering dialogue. They have also written scholarly articles in order to determine the limits and restrictions as well as aims and intentions of it and they have not been careless in raising these issues even at the time of dialogue.

There can’t be a dialogue between the oppressor and the oppressed

The most important thing in connection with the dialogue is that it can’t be held between the oppressor and the oppressed. Dialogue is possible when the parties accept existence of each other with due respect, when they believe in peaceful coexistence, whey they are ready to give each other the right to freedom of expression and when they agree to the principle of live and let live. The actual purpose of the dialogue is lost by ignoring these ideas and principles at any stage of the dialogue.

Before the dialogue

Acknowledging the need to hold dialogue is equivalent to recognize the fact that different religions, customs, traditions and beliefs exist in the world. Agreeing to this need makes one realize that the difference in cultural phenomena in different parts of the world and among different groups across the globe is also a reality and that language, accent, clothing, food and modes of living and the likes and dislikes in this regard have also existence.

Participants of the dialogue should bear in mind the difference among disputation, polemics and dialogue. It is against the essence of dialogue to have the desire to make others accept, in any case, one’s supremacy and truthfulness. Some people think that dialogue will help create pluralism in the world and some others believe that possibly it (promoting pluralism) is the purpose of the dialogue. But, I feel that it should not be the purpose. Dialogue should carry along the lines of recognizing each other’s existence even if having differences of opinion. However, we can hold discussions on the dissenting views and what are the etiquettes and ways to express one’s disagreements.

Dialogue in every sector

Dialogue can be held on matters related to politics, society or economics. Holding dialogue on religious matters has generally gained popularity. But, dialogue on political and economic issues is, by the way, going on across the world. However, the difficulty occurs when goals are political or economic and the title given to the dialogue is religious. The majority of religious disputes will come to an end if the religion is not used, as per one’s need or as per one’s taste, to achieve political and economic objectives. It is pertinent for those who are holding religious dialogue to understand the causes of religious tensions and keep a close eye on economic and political disputes as well as imperialistic designs and its goals. Thoughtful and sincere religious leaders should lay bare before their followers that there are economic and political objectives behind religious conflicts. It is important to know that the rulers and politicians, in order to serve their interest, have been fomenting religious discords in the past too.

Would world turn secular because of dialogue?

Some people are under the impression that world will become secular as a result of the dialogue and some really want so because they think that secularism provides the only and best solution to religious discords and conflicts. They are of the opinion that the experiment the west has done in this regard is a concrete reality. They believe that after obtaining salvation from the rule of the Church, European nations established their states on the basis of secularism and all progress and development in the west became possible because of it. My request in this respect is that every experiment has its background and confines. The history of world is full of examples where it may be said that a human society attained the ascendancy because of faith and it was due the religion that nations were bailed out of dangers and troubles. In today's world too, there is no dearth of those whose arguments are based on either of the above two points of view. So, if the dialogue is going to take place between the persons holding these two views, then it can’t be fruitful by making other submit to one’s standpoint. Although, it can’t be denied that there exists partial or whole truth in both the perspectives.

Focusing of mind

Sometimes it is said that attention does not remain focused when it comes to the dialogue. It is a very important issue. Apart from the participants of the dialogue, the responsibility of facilitators is much more in this connection. Not remaining concentrated gives rise to confusing ideas and thoughts and as a result many issues and topics are discussed at the same time. Therefore, meetings come to an end without positive results and without creating good impressions, besides wasting time and resources.

Taking part in dialogue with the spirit of knowing other’s perspectives

It is not necessary that a religious scholar belonging to a particular sect or religion will be having good knowledge of other denominations and faiths. Peaceful and harmonious atmosphere can be created in case every person takes part in the dialogue with the spirit of gaining information, with the aim to explain his point of view in a good way and with the objective to know about other’s perspectives. To discuss the ways and extremities about how to express or provide general acceptance to the dissenting views that emerge in the dialogue can reinforce the objective of peaceful coexistence.

Benefit from experts

In this age of specialization, experts in particular fields should be involved in the discussions keeping in view the subjects of the dialogue. Religious topics are also rich in diversity. Also, religious scholars belonging to every religion are not experts in every field. So, it is necessary to include experts in particular subjects so that dialogue can continue in the right direction and also can reach its logical conclusion.

Dialogue creates adverse effects on some persons

Another difficulty that comes to fore with respect to dialogue is about the identity. When a particular person travels to everywhere with the label of being a representative of a particular sect or religion attached to him and he starts receiving invitations of foreign tours because of this tag, which now becomes his basis of identity and the cause of being respected, then will he not play his role to strengthen this particular identity. In light of the experiments carried out in the world in this connection, it can be said that people having different thinking levels, status, position and rank have produced different types of results when they got the chance of participating in meetings at number of world forums in the capacity of being representatives of certain denominations and faiths. These results are both positive and negative. Those persons who are serious about dialogue and those administrators who wish to seek positive results from it should enter into next stages keeping in view these experiments.

Welcome positive effects

It is quite possible that sincere and honest people will undergo a change after enhancing their level of awareness about other sects, religions and people. Therefore, any positive changes witnessed in the participants of dialogue should be welcomed.

Threat from extremists

Extremist groups and individuals also pose a threat to the dialogue. Consequently, the participants in the dialogue are also the target of this threat. Maybe this danger is a factor that some people, after getting involved in a dialogue, do not make efforts to make its results known to the general public. However, it is also beyond doubt that there are so many persons who, in the name of dialogue, visited a number of countries, enjoyed lodging and food in luxurious hotels, but on return neither informed their followers about the positive results of the dialogue nor took any steps themselves in this connection. There is also no dearth of such people who did not experience any change in their behavior after joining a dialogue. They were propagating extremist views before partaking in such meetings and continued to do so after their return.

Dialogue based on truth and sincerity must continue

Closing the topic I want to say that we should persist with dialogue at every level bearing in mind pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Dialogue should keep going on among different religions and different sects; it should continue to take place in political as well as economic arenas, but with sincerity and truthfulness.