Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Religious differences have always existed between people. That is why inter-religious dialogue has been found in one form or the other since ancient times. Fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet of Islam held a three-religion conference in Medina to exchange views on religious issues.

Such attempts have repeatedly been made in history. The circumstances that unfolded following World War II led the Church, in particular, to pay great attention to this issue. Through its continuous efforts, dialogues of this nature are regularly being held in various countries, between Muslims and Christians in particular.

These efforts have borne fruit. As an example of Christian-Muslim solidarity, during the Arab Spring protests in Cairo, Muslims and Christians protected each other whilst they prayed.

If the Quran is consulted on this subject, we find two main principles on which to hold dialogues. One is derived from this verse of the Quran —

“Say: O People of the Book, let us come to a word common to us and you that we will worship none but God.” (THE QURAN, 3:64)

The first and foremost principle for any dialogue held to discuss two or more religions is to strive to find a mutual basis for peaceful co-existence. Finding common ground in secular matters is comparatively easy, for nothing is held as sacred in secularism. On the contrary, everything is sacred in religion. That is why it becomes the most difficult task to find a basis for agreement in religious matters. However, despite all difficulties, we must continue our peaceful efforts, irrespective of the results. The second principle given to us by the Quran is purely a matter of pragmatism. We learn that matters should be settled on practical grounds, avoiding their theoretical aspects.This principle is derived from this verse of the Quran —

“For you, your religion and for me, mine.” (THE QURAN, 109:6)

This is the principle of religious co-existence. This means that whenever common grounds for agreement between two or more parties cannot be arrived at on an ideological basis, then the way of practical co-existence must be adopted.

The Community of Sant’Egidio is a Christian community that provides a good example of a continuing dialogue of this nature. The community promotes interaction on a mass scale between adherents of different religions. The religious meet held under the auspices of the Community of Sant’Egidio on a large scale each year makes a considerable contribution towards the achievement of the goal targeted by dialogue.

We should not judge our efforts in this matter only by the results of meetings held in the name of formally arranged inter-religious dialogue. The truth is that ‘inter-religious dialogue’ is not limited to specific meetings held in the field of religion. It has assumed the form of a vast historical process—spontaneous, ongoing and perhaps never completely recorded. Negotiation in controversial matters is in tune with the spirit of the age.

The industrial revolution and modern communication have added such vast dimensions to human relations that the entire world has been converted into a global village. People of various beliefs are coming closer, on a global scale. This interaction serves as an informal and on-going dialogue. With distances shortened, the confrontational attitude gives way to compromise. Interaction in itself is unannounced dialogue. As a result of circumstances, when interactions between people of different beliefs increase, the purpose of the dialogue is served on its own.

Today, in educational institutions, offices, in travel, and in national and international activities, adherents of different religious traditions are meeting one another on a scale hitherto unwitnessed. In the course of this continuous and vast interaction, for the first time in human history, people seem less like strangers to one another. A great gap has been bridged. People are learning one another’s languages. They are becoming familiar with one another’s culture. Making concessions to one another has become a basic social need.

These factors have brought people all over the world closer. And it is a psychological truth that closeness and interaction serve the purpose of a practical dialogue. In this way, a natural dialogue has come into existence and has become an on-going process at all times and in all places. Probably the most dramatic result of this historical process is that after a long intellectual struggle, religious intolerance has been universally rejected. Religious intolerance has now been replaced with complete religious freedom. Today under the auspices of the United Nations, all the nations of the world have signed the universal declaration of human rights. In accordance with this declaration, religious freedom has been accepted as the natural birthright of all human beings. As opposed to practices in ancient times, no one can persecute anyone on the basis of religion. This is the change which has elevated the sphere of religious difference to peaceful negotiation.

The effects of this can be seen in all walks of life, whether religious or secular. Every one of us, consciously or unconsciously, plays a part in making religious co-existence a reality. Interfaith dialogue becoming a part of the historical process holds great promise for us, as in this way its success is assured. This is how every great revolution of history has got under way. Whenever a movement goes beyond the stage of individual or group efforts and joins the historical process itself, then the continuity of that movement is ensured and nothing can stop it reaching its goal. In short, inter-religious dialogue had its beginnings in individual interaction, paving the way for discussions held in religious gatherings.

The time has now come when it has become a part of a world movement. If the course of events is any indication, God willing, that day too will dawn when the world is no more ridden with religious disputes, and we are able to live in a peaceful and harmonious world.

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