Interfaith dialogue is criticised by some religious leaders as a conspiracy designed to merge all religions into one. Certain individuals and communities fear the loss or weakening of their religious identities as a result of engaging in dialogue and interacting with followers of other faiths.
These fears, however, are largely unfounded. All religions, including Islam, emphasise common values such as interfaith harmony and cooperation. For example, the Prophet Muhammad advocated reconciliation with other religions, as evidenced by his peace treaty with Jewish tribes in Medina. He also believed in mutual trust between different faith communities, evidenced by the fact that in 615 CE he sent Muslims fleeing persecution from the Meccans to find refuge with the Christian king of Abyssinia, current-day Ethiopia.
Dialogue is not about trying to defeat others, but about understanding and learning about them. The Qur’an insists that the world’s beauty lies in its racial and religious pluralism, otherwise God would not have created it so (10:99 and 5:48). The Qur’an states: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (49:13).
The process of dialogue forces people to examine and reconfirm their own religious identity and to strengthen their own beliefs while respecting those of others with patience and dignity.
In this sense, interfaith dialogue can provide a platform to understand and cooperate with each other. For this dialogue to move forward successfully, representatives of different faiths engaged in active dialogue should agree on the following three principles: forced conversions are not condoned; followers of all religions are free to lead lives in accordance with their own beliefs; and the values inherent in all religions — especially patience and tolerance – that allow their followers to coexist with one another peacefully are respected.
In Islam, these principles are clearly laid out. First, the often quoted Qur’anic verse: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) rejects forced conversions to Islam and provides a fundamental parameter for Muslims to meet peacefully with people of other religions, accepting who and what they are.
Second, the Qur’an acknowledges freedom of religion and religious worship: “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). This verse clearly forbids Muslims to interfere in other peoples religious affairs and affirms the freedom to live according to one’s faith.
Third, when it comes to exercising patience and tolerance, the Qur’an advises Muslims to interact with non-Muslims for the sake of the common good: "God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you over religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them" (8:9).
These teachings of no compulsion, freedom of belief, and worship and forgiveness have unfortunately been disregarded or overlooked by people keen on creating division.
Those perpetrating violence in the name of religion for their own vested interests will not succeed in creating divisions if others come forward as connectors rather than dividers. Every religion has developed a message around human values of peace, love, tolerance and mutual respect. Interfaith dialogue can build on these commonalities to strengthen the world community of believers and can save religion from being maligned by those bent on destroying it.
* Qazi Abdul Qadeer Khamosh is a Lahore-based interfaith peace activist and Chairman of the Muslim Christian Federation International. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).