The modern world is getting more and more globalised and more globalisation means more and more faith traditions coming together. The western world was so far by and large mono-religious whereas Asia was always multi-religious. Arabia, before Islam, was multi-religious, as Christianity, Judaism and paganism co-existed there. The Arabs, it is interesting to note living in Mecca and Yathrib (which was later known as Madinat al-Nabi or simply Madina) did not embrace Judaism or Christianity. They considered them as foreign faiths and perhaps waiting for some native faith.
Islam appeared in multi-religious situation though in Mecca there were not many Christians and no Jews. But when the Prophet (PBUH) migrated to Madina there were Jews belonging to various tribes and pagan Arabs along with Muslims from Madina as well as those Meccan Muslims who migrated with the Prophet. The Holy Prophet never adopted confrontationist, much less hostile attitude towards Jews and pagan Arabs.
He, instead, entered into a pact with Jews of different tribes and pagans conceding them full freedom to follow their religions and different tribal traditions. This pact is known as Mithaq-e-Madina. The Prophet was fully supported by the revelation he received from Allah. The Qur'an also conceded freedom of faith in the words la ikrah fi' al-Din (There is no compulsion in matters of religion (2:256).
Not only this Qur'an recognised other faiths present in Arabia as valid and from Allah. It even said that Muhammad, the messenger of Allah (PBUH) had not brought new Truth but has come to confirm the Truth, which already exists. The Qur'an expresses it as musaddiqan ma bayna yadayhi. There are several verses to this effect in the Qur'an. Thus we find in the chapter on The Family of Amran, "He has revealed to thee the Book with truth, verifying that which is before it (musaddiqan lima bayna yadayhi), and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, a guidance for the people and He sent the Discrimination (furqan) (i.e. discerning true from false)" (3:3)
Thus the Qur'an did not reject earlier revelations as false but verified their truth maintaining they were also revelations from High on. Those following these Books were called ahl al-kitab (people of the Book) and all preceding prophets were accepted as prophets appointed from Allah. Thus in the verse 2:87 "And We indeed gave Moses the Book and We sent messengers after him one after another; and We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear arguments and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit."
The Qur'an has mentioned several prophets but also says all prophets have not been named which means there were prophets which have not be named in the Qur'an. See verse 40:78, for example. Thus the Qur'an is full of such verses declaring validity of the message brought by the prophets before Muhammad. Thus the Qur'an adopted very conciliatory attitude towards the faiths that existed before and invited people of the Book to come and cooperate with Muslims in common beliefs. Thus the Qur'an says, "Say: O People of the Book, come to an equitable word between us and you, that we shall serve no none but Allah and that we shall not associate aught with Him, and that some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah. But if they turn away, then say: Bear witness, we are Muslims."
The fact that the Prophet believed in freedom of faith is that when a Christian delegation from Najran led by Abdul Masih came to the Prophet they were lodged in the Prophet's mosque. The Prophet did argue with these Christians that Christ was prophet of God and not God himself but when they insisted on their belief they were allowed to practice their religion.
Islam is the religion of strict monotheism and rejects any deviation from it so it was natural for it to reject the doctrine of divinity of Christ. However, as already pointed out, it allowed those who believed in the divinity of Christ to continue to believe in his divinity. It did not interfere with freedom of conscience. The Prophet even allowed the Christian delegation from Najran to pray as per their tradition inside his mosque. That is certainly an illuminating example of freedom of faith and tolerance.
We are lacking such tolerance today even in 21st century. The Prophet recognised the fact that for genuine faith, freedom of conscience is absolutely necessary. Without such freedom no one can freely choose ones faith. Coercion in matters of faith is contradiction in terms. This doctrine of freedom of faith was practiced by the Prophet and has also been mentioned in the revealed text.
The Qur'an accepts the doctrine of wahdat-e-Din i.e. unity of religion and that is why all prophets mentioned or not mentioned in the Qur'an have been sent by God. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, an eminent scholar of Islam has devoted the whole volume of his Tarjuman al-Qur'an to this theme of Wahdat-e-Din and before him another eminent theologian of 18th century India Shah Waliyullah also dilates on this theme in his magnum opus called Hujjatullah al-Baligha Maulana Azad even maintains that one must distinguish between Din and Shari'ah. Din represents essence of religion and is one everywhere and according to him Din represents belief in one God, in the prophets sent by Allah, in the Day of Judgement and in revelation. Shari'ah, on the other hand represents laws, customs and traditions and they are bound to differ according to geographical and historical or cultural conditions. Each religious law finds _expression in concrete historical conditions and hence differs from the other. One should not quarrel about these differences.
The Qur'an itself accepts this fact when it says: "For every one of you We appointed a law and a way." Further in this verse the Qur'an says, "And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds." (5:48)
Thus differences are bound to be there between different faith traditions. These faith traditions develop different theologies and each faith community comes into existence with its own cultural traditions and practices. One should not make these differences as central issue. What is important is to recognise these differences and respect each other and "vie one with the other in virtuous deeds" as the Qur'an puts it.
A genuine dialogue should and does recognise these differences. Truth is one but finds different expressions in different cultures and different circumstances. Without recognising this one cannot enter into a genuine dialogue with the other. The other, in a dialogue situation, should mean different and never hostile. Hostility develops due to reasons other than religious and doctrinal. The Prophet (PBUH) allowed the Jews full freedom to practice their faith and each Jewish tribe was allowed to practice its faith according to its tribal traditions.
Thus there never was any religious or doctrinal clash between Muslims and Jews. However, clash did take place between two communities on account of clashing interests of the two communities. Muslims were a rising and dynamic community in Madina and thus they became a challenge to the hegemony of the Jews over that city. They were loosing their leadership position to the Muslims as more and more people in Madina and around it were embracing Islam.
It was quite natural as Islam greatly appealed to the Arabs as it was their native faith imbibing their cultural and historical traditions and revealed in their language. Also, Muhammad (PBUH) belonged to one of their tribes i.e. the tribe of Quraysh and made them proud through his prophecy. Christianity and Judaism, on the other hand, appeared to them as an alien faith and Christianity a religion of Roman imperialists who were looking for ways to subjugate Arabia.
Even those Arabs on the Roman border had adopted Christianity of dissenting variety and resented Roman domination. These Arabs were Monophysites and were persecuted by Romans who were Catholics and rulers. Many of these Monophysites ultimately became Muslims when Islam spread to those border areas.1 These were some of the reasons why Islam spread so easily in that region whereas Christianity could not.
Real political clash between Islam and Christianity took place way later when Crusades took place in 10-11 century A.D. This caused much hostility between Muslims and Christianity especially as capturing Palestine, which is holy place both for Christians and Muslims was involved. The misunderstanding persists until today. It was basically power struggle and not a clash between two religions though it is perceived as such.
The Islamic doctrine of wahdat-e-Din was very liberal and open and it ensured complete freedom of religion for people leaving under Muslim dispensations. Relations between Muslims and Christians were never strained because of religious differences. Even today the clash between USA and the Islamic world is basically political though today also it is perceived by many Muslims as US hostility towards Islam and Islamic world.
It is the duty of believing Christians and Muslims to sit together and have genuine dialogue to promote peace and better understanding. It is obvious that dialogue is meant to patiently listen, raise probing questions and try to understand the religious others' point of view. It should always be borne in mind that dialogue is meant for understanding the other and not converting the other.
Our world today is full of conflict and conflict is created, more often than not, by vested interests through highly misleading propaganda and misinformation campaign. And in this world of conflict if peace is to prevail dialogue between different religious groups is highly necessary. Our world is getting more and more diverse and when two different religious and cultural groups live side by side, misunderstandings are bound to arise. And such misunderstandings often assume explosive form.
If a dialogue takes place in a post-conflict period it is highly necessary to engage in dialogue after studying the conflict situation in great detail to dispel doubts and aroused feelings. There are invariably those actors who benefit from conflict and they try to keep the conflict going by invoking religion as a legitimising cover. So for the dialoguing parties it becomes necessary to have in-depth knowledge of religion, apart from the conflict situation.
Since the west is now becoming increasingly diverse and multi-religious, it is realising the importance of mutual dialogue. Now there is hardly any European country, which does not have presence of Muslims and increasing number of Muslims in European countries is creating difficult situation at times leading to violence as recently it happened in Holland. A film was made which displayed prejudice against Islam and the film- maker was murdered by a Muslim and violence broke out against Muslims and some mosques were set on fire.
In France too conflict between migrant Muslims and white French is increasing. Hijab has created another emotional controversy. The French Government, in order to appease some rightists, enacted a law against wearing hijab and other religious symbols few months ago. Hijab has become symbol of fundamentalist Islam though it is not true. In fact for many Muslims in Europe, though not for all, hijab represents more than religious obligation; it is also a visible identity marker for them. They feel lost in western culture where women bare much more than culturally permitted for Arab Muslims and hence they resort to hijab to represent their Muslimness.
In France too number of violent attacks on Muslims were reported. According to the UN document in France number of incidents against Muslim were reported. According to the Document submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission "In January 2003 Muslim mosques and other premises were defaced by the spraying of red, white and blue paint ? at Lyon (Lyon suburbs), Paris, Melun, Nanterre, Lomont and Cenon. In the night of 18 to 19 January 2003, in Avignon, the Valdegour mosque had a "visit", the mosque at Chemin-bas-d'Vignon was burgled, and the mosque in the town centre was broken into. Aty Valdegour, the doors were forced, books and magazines thrown to the ground, the list of donors was partially torn down, and a car, parked in the mosque grounds, was broken into." According to an estimate by Rashid Nekkaz, a spokesman for Citizens' Forum for Muslim culture between January and May 2003 more than a dozen attacks on the Muslim places of worship took place.
In the USA also incidents of hate crime are on the increase, especially in the post-9/11 situation. Many Muslims are being attacked, particularly of the Arab origin as Usama bin Laden was a Saudi Arab. Most of these attacks are motivated by anger and feeling of revenge and ignorance of Islam and Islamic teachings. The situation in the west is so serious that the Report quoted above ends with an appeal: "The Commission on Human Rights is invited to issue an urgent appeal to all Member States to recognise the reality and seriousness of Islamophobia." The religious and cultural sources of Islamophobia are such that if dialogue culture is not promoted, it can assume serious proportions.
One should not forget that there are also instances of Christianophobia and anti-Semitic violence. It is, therefore, highly necessary to stem the rot. One has to fight such phobias on personal and emotional level as much as on intellectual and ideological level. The French kind of militant secularism can also become a serious problem. It stigmatises a religion, culture and community. Wearing of hijab is not simple manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism as explained above. It is as much religio-cultural and identity problem on one hand, and, security problem, on the other.
A secular state first of all has to guarantee complete freedom of religion and tolerate religio-cultural practices of different communities. Dialogue culture alone can promote proper understanding as well as tolerance of the other. It should be noted that the process of ?otherisation' is going to increase in our globalised world. There is hardly any escape from it. Globalisation is also causing serious problem of fundamentalist violence because American culture is being projected as ?hegemonic culture' creating fear in the minds of non-US and non-Western minds.
Thus inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue has become absolute necessity. It is much more than mere intellectual exercise. It is necessary exercise for promoting peace and tolerance in our violence-ridden world. In all such attacks motivated by Islamopobia-Christianophobia and anti-Semitism only innocent people of these communities are killed and such attacks are politically exploited by some politicians for promoting further hatred between communities. Though inter-religious dialogue cannot wipe it out it can certainly help in minimising the incidents and can help promote better understanding.
As there is need for inter-faith dialogue with other religious communities, there is great need for intra-religious dialogue among Muslims, particularly in South Asia. Intra-religious hatred and violence too is increasing. Anti-Ahmedia violence and Shi'ah-Sunni conflict in Pakistan and (ant-Ahmedia violence) in Bangla Desh to some extent, are obvious examples of this intra-religious conflict.
In Pakistan anti-Ahmedia conflict was quite prominent in late seventies and during eighties which began by declaring them as non-Muslims by Government of Pakistan under pressure from Saudi rulers. Later during eighties anti-Shi'ah violence also intensified and many Shi'ah Muslims were killed by some Sunni fundamentalists. In retaliation some Shi'ahs killed Sunni Muslims. This intra-religious violence has assumed serious proportions particularly in Pakistan. There are also unfortunate instances of anti-Christian violence in Pakistan.
Thus there is great need for intra-religious dialogue in Pakistan between Ahmadis, Shi'ahs and Sunni. Who is right or wrong is for Allah to decide; we mortals have to leave in peace on this earth despite these theological differences. It is true that there are powerful political interests behind this intra-religious violence among Muslims in Pakistan. These groups have their own political agenda behind these attacks but common people should not fall victims to these powerful interests. Misunderstandings should be removed through the process of intra-religious dialogue.
In fact today there is great need for ecumenical movement among Muslims. Intra-religious differences are on the increase among different Islamic sects. In India differences among Deobandis and Barelvis have become very sharp. There have been instances of murders. Recently an imam belonging to the Deobandi mosque was murdered in a U.P. village and in turn the followers of the Deobandi imam killed the imam of the Barelvi mosque. As a result curfew had to be imposed in the village.
Polemics abound between Ahl-e-Hadith, Tablighis and Deobandis denouncing each other as kafirs. More Muslims are in fact declared as kafirs in this conflict than non-Muslims. Here I would like to quote the famous sentence from the Justice Munir Report which inquired into the anti-Ahmadia disturbances in Pakistan in early fifties. According to Justice Munir when cross-examined no two mullahs agreed on a definition of a Muslim but all of them agreed that one who is not a Muslim should be killed.
This is an important observation and must be seriously taken note of though it was made in early fifties. The situation today, if anything, has worsened. Every sectarian leader denounces Muslims not following his sect as following erroneous path and would be doomed to hell whereas the Qur'an repeatedly asserts that it is for Allah to decide who is right and who is wrong. The people should excel each other in good deeds (fastabequ'l khayrat) as pointed out above.
Human beings are fallible and hence should not arrogate to themselves who is right and who is wrong, who is true believer and who is on wrong path. We may not agree with the other but we must tolerate him/her and leave it to Allah to decide. No one can convert all Muslims to one single point of view as various sects have existed for a long period of time and have developed their theologies, their communities and their establishments. All this cannot be wished away.
The verse 5:48 quoted above applies as much to different religious communities as to different sects of Islam. It is Allah's Will to have diversity and diversity is, in fact, our test for tolerance and living in peace. However, we hardly follow the Qur'anic injunctions and are motivated by our human ego as well as by our worldly interests. Thus Muslims belonging to different sects should accept diversity of views among Muslims and live with it. And intra-religious dialogue will greatly help in increasing mutual tolerance and co-existence.
Thus a true believer should strive to face both external as well as internal challenges with total commitment of peace and tolerance. We Muslims should be guided by the Holy Prophet's hadith that a good Muslim is one whose hands do not harm any other human being. This is possible only when we live in peace and harmony with each other and show respect for others' beliefs.