Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
The richer we have become materially, the poorer we become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly in the air like birds and swim in the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
Perhaps MLK was talking about racial equality, but I believe that the same challenge applies to religious tolerance and cooperation as well. Even though we as human beings and especially as Muslims aspire to live in peace and brotherhood, we rarely take steps to fulfill these ideals of the Islamic faith. No doubt it’s often an uphill battle to change mindsets, and we just don’t have time, especially since the face of political Islam as portrayed by the media and many extremist elements within the Muslim world has become too ugly for us to face.
To me, the above arguments make it even more essential to engage in interfaith dialogue. If you look at the world around us, you will see that religion has become the basis of everything negative – from violence to oppression and so much more. And although as Muslims we like to point out the misbehavior of other groups, Christian, Buddhist and the like, the fact is that the Muslim world today is mired in deep schisms and militant interpretations that prevent it from fully representing the beautiful teachings of Islam. Many Muslims don’t know or cannot articulate the fact that interfaith harmony is a cornerstone of Islamic principles. From the charter of Medina to the covenant with the Sinai monastery, from the widely touted Common Word verse of the Holy Quran to the equally popular Surah Al-Kafirun, Muslim proponents of interfaith dialogue can rightly point to a high standard of tolerance and harmonious living with our neighbors of different faiths and of no faith set by the Quran and practiced by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Yet today, Muslims in the United States and abroad couldn’t be bothered to participate in activities that bring people together. As an interfaith activist and speaker, I meet countless Muslims who tell me they don’t want to talk to people of other religions. Why? One reason is their own insecurities, their lack of knowledge about Islam which implies the inability to answer tough questions someone may have. These Muslims feel uncomfortable and unjustly attacked whenever they participate in group discussions where the topic is religion.
A Common Bond
Should feelings of inadequacy stop us from our duty, though? Apart from the internationally celebrated annual Religious Founders Day by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, little else is being done in the name of interfaith dialogue in the United States on a regular basis today. Even the Arab and European Muslim world, with organizations such as the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue trump us in intent and activities. In the meantime, the insatiable curiosity about Islam and Muslims in the United States is only growing stronger with each passing day. The media constantly bombards viewers, listeners and readers with stereotypes of Muslims, but many Americans realize that the truth is less black and white than what they are being fed. The problem is that many Muslims are not stepping into this vacuum to take up the challenge and correct misunderstandings. That the average American is hungry for information is undeniable; from law enforcement to church groups to high school students, I have discovered a quest for real answers in the minds of everyone I have met or trained. But there are too many asking questions and not enough providing answers. That’s where I think Muslims can contribute a lot if they wanted to.
This week, much is being spoken about interfaith harmony, mostly by practitioners and academics of Christian and Jewish faith under the umbrella of World Interfaith Harmony Week, celebrated each year during the first week of February. American Muslims have been largely absent from the events, although interestingly, the concept was proposed by King Abdullah of Jordan to the General Assembly of the United Nations.
The United Nations in 2010 proclaimed it an international effort:
Recognizing the imperative need for dialogue among different faiths and religions to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among people, the General Assembly encourages all States to support during that week the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship, on a voluntary basis and according to their own religious traditions or convictions.
A Need for Interfaith Dialogue
Which brings me to the second reason for the average Muslim’s reluctance towards interfaith dialogue: a sense of superiority of Islam over other world religions. The thinking I have witnessed among my brothers and sisters is that we already have all the guidance we need, why would we want to learn anything from other faiths? Can you think of a more frustrating response? Surely we must recognize that even though we have excellent guidance in the form of the Quran, Hadith and Sunnah, we are not always excellent followers of the aforementioned guidance. Surely there is something we can learn from our friends and neighbors as they struggle to follow their own scriptures. I have found interfaith discussions to be refreshing and educational in a number of ways, most notably through the realization that we are all human beings, brought together to worship God and serve each other. So even if you as a Muslim don’t have sufficient knowledge to convince someone of Islam’s theological superiority, you can still impress people with your good manners, civil talk and kind nature. You can still share the basic values of honesty, love of God and service to mankind with followers of other religions. You can find commonalities in worship, beliefs, and so much more. To me, that is the best way to represent the true teachings of Islam.