Inter-Faith Dialogue in Islam

Dialogue, or peaceful negotiation, is the path prescribed by Islam. Islam is based on the principle of dawah, which is another name for peaceful negotiation. Violence is totally forbidden in Islam. There is only one exception to this ban and that is when it is engaged in self-defense. This can take place only at the time of external invasion, and such action is the prerogative of an established government. Non-governmental organizations have no right to wage a war in the name of justice, or even in self-defense.

The Prophet of Islam started his mission in 610 A.D. This mission was to communicate his ideology to people by talking to them, listening to their objections and trying to convince them of his viewpoint by means of arguments. One of the initial Quranic verses revealed to him was that the ideology given by God to the Prophet should be spread by him among the people (93:11) The Prophet’s ideology was based on monotheism, whereas his Arab contemporaries believed in polytheism. It was but natural, therefore, that his mission should become subject to bilateral negotiation.

He would communicate his point to people, listen to their responses and then give them further explanations. In this way his mission became a practical demonstration of what we now term dialogue. To make this dialogue fruitful, the Quran lays down certain meaningful guidelines: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” (16:125)

This verse shows that your conversation with others should be carried on in the best and most gracious way, that is any bickering with other parties has to be avoided. After listening to their objections, the point should be made in such a way as appeals to their minds. That is, it should not end in mere debate, but should be result-oriented. The conversation should not appear to be between rivals, but should take a scientific course.

The Quran makes this quite explicit:

“Good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best, then he between whom and you was enmity will become as if he were a warm friend.” (41:34)

This verse of the Quran tells us that no one is Mr. Enemy. Everyone is potentially Mr. Friend. This is so because everyone is born with the same nature. From this Quranic principle, we learn that the beginning of any dialogue should not be marked by any sign of frustration about the possible outcome. The right approach is to display a hopeful attitude and at the very outset to suppress any tone which would suggest low expectations of success.

In this regard, another verse of the Quran is as follows:

“Say: “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you that we worship none but God.” (3:64)

We learn from this verse, what should be the subject of discussion when a conversation is being held between two parties? That is, the beginning of a dialogue should not be started with a controversy. Instead, a common ground should be sought on which the discussion should begin. The sequence of the discussion, therefore, should be from agreement to difference of opinion and then back to agreement.

In Islam, the formula for social peace, social harmony and inter-faith dialogue is based on peaceful co-existence as has been given in the following verse of the Quran:

“To you then be your way. And to me be mine.” (109:6)

In other words, the principle of dialogue given by Islam is, “Follow one and respect all” or the method of ‘mutual respect’. As per the teachings of Islam, while respecting others, we have to welcome differences wholeheartedly without any reservation. It is hatred, which has to be eliminated, and not difference of opinion. People may have their differences in belief, religion, culture, etc., but while following their religion, they have to have mutual respect for others and discover a common bond between them, which shows them all to be human beings.

The following is another relevant verse:

“Revile not those whom they call upon wrongfully besides God, lest they revile God in their ignorance.” (6:108)

We gather from this verse of the Quran that, when dialogue takes place between two parties on a controversial subject, it is essential that an amicable atmosphere be maintained. If media belonging to both the parties set about arousing animosity, and people on both sides are engaged in spreading antagonistic feelings, such an unfavourable atmosphere will be created that no fruitful dialogue can take place.

It is a fact that the result of dialogue is not solely dependent upon the atmosphere of the immediate surroundings, but depends rather upon whether the external environment favours or disfavours it.

Another principle of dialogue is supported by the tradition of the Prophet of Islam concerning the via media arrived at in drawing up the Hudaibiya Peace Treaty. This treaty was signed only after long negotiations between the Prophet of Islam and the Quraysh. It is a matter of historical record that the conclusion of this treaty was possible because the Prophet unilaterally accepted the conditions laid down by the Quraysh.

The principle of dialogue derived from this Sunnah of the Prophet is that both the parties should present their viewpoints supported by arguments, while remaining ever ready for give and take — a pre-requisite of a successful dialogue — rather than insist on all demands being unconditionally met.

In practical matters, Islam advocates flexibility to the ultimate possible extent.

We learn from a number of examples throughout Islamic history that Islam not only lays down principles of dialogue, but also gives practical demonstrations. In the Makkan period of his mission, the Prophet of Islam repeatedly practiced the principle of dialogue. For instance, once the Quraysh sent their leader, Utba-ibn-Rabiyya, as their representative to the Prophet of Islam so that an atmosphere of peace might be arrived at through negotiation on the subject of mutual differences. The traditions tell us that Utba heard the Prophet out patiently and with full attention; and then conveyed what he had said to the Quraysh. Similarly, at the invitation of his uncle, Abu-Talib, representatives of the Quraysh gathered at the Prophet’s home and held negotiations there peacefully on controversial matters.

This principle of peaceful negotiations can also be witnessed in the negotiations held at Hudaibiya between the Quraysh and Prophet of Islam that continued for about two weeks, culminating in the treaty of Hudaibiya. This event, without doubt, is a successful example of peaceful negotiation. Again, in the presence of the Prophet of Islam, tripartite talks were held between representatives of three religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity, in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. This historic event, which took place in the sacred place of worship, shows the importance given to peaceful dialogue in Islam.

These examples, which are many in number, relate to the golden age of the Prophet and his companions. That is why; the practice of dialogue in terms of bilateral negotiation enjoys the position of an established principle in Islam.

In Conclusion

It becomes clear from the above discussion that the method of Islam is that of peaceful dialogue. The Quran tells us that the way of peace is the best way. (4:128)

There is another verse, which tells us that the way of negotiation and arbitration should be adopted in controversial matters. (4:35)

There is a tradition to this effect: “Do not desire or seek confrontation with the enemy, but rather ask for peace from God." (Al Bukari: 2966)

The objective of Islam is to bring about divine revolution, to invite people to the worship of God, to strive for a society in which spiritual, ethical, and human values are cherished. Islam advocates an atmosphere where peace, tolerance, love and well wishing is the order of the day — an atmosphere where controversies are resolved without the use of violence. This is the desired world of Islam and such a world can be established only through peaceful dialogue. The truth is that Islam is based on monotheism, with regard to God; and on peaceful dialogue, with regard to methodology. This is the essence of Islamic teaching. No other way is possible in Islam.