Inter-religious or inter-community dialogue is a pressing imperative today. I have had the good fortune of having been able to engage in such dialogue initiatives, although in a limited way. When I was doing my PhD in Lampeter, from the University of Wales (1990-1994), I used to talk to my Christian friends and learn about their beliefs and perspectives, and, in turn, inform them about mine. On a brief visit to India (2005) I did the same with my Hindu friends. I get little opportunity of doing this in Pakistan, though.
A positive outcome of such initiatives can be respect for individuals who hold beliefs and views other than one’s own, and a realization that if the other person is different, he has a reason for it which makes sense to him. That said, in many cases conventional forms of inter-faith dialogue sometimes become a very superficial exercise of exchanging information for the sake of it. Unless we allow ourselves the freedom to be politely critical of each other’s views, we won’t be genuine in our discussions. Meaningful dialogue allows people to be politely critical and frank, and allots equal time to all participants to express themselves.
Often, inter-religious dialogue initiatives take the form of religious ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ coming together for a few hours and saying good things about each other’s religions. They often don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, so they keep silent on the beliefs and practices of other communities that they find problematic. Such meetings don’t serve any real purpose, however.
Sometimes, dialogue efforts seek to ignore the very real differences between the different religions in the name of promoting harmony. This can take the form of claiming that all religions are one and the same. This approach is not intellectually honest. It also does not actually promote harmony. What we should do, rather, is to start with sharing what is common between the different religions, and then politely address our differences later, as the dialogue unfolds. And even if others don’t agree with our views despite our good efforts, we don’t have a right to accuse them.
Religion is a concern of everyone. If an ‘ordinary’ person is following a particular religion, believing it to be truth from God, he shouldn’t leave it to his ‘expert’ to deal with it. So, inter-religious dialogue should not be restricted just to the ‘expert’s—as is often the case. The focus of such dialogue be on religious beliefs as well as exploring ways in which people of different faiths can work together to deal with issues of common concern—such as war and peace, communal conflict, poverty and environmental destruction, and so on.
Today, all religious communities face a common problem in their own ranks—growing atheism, irreligiousness, consumerism, materialism, etc. People of different religions who want to address these issues can benefit a lot by learning from each other’s efforts and experiences in this regard. This is a very useful form of dialogue.
There is always a possibility of learning from others. For instance, non-Muslims can at times be instrumental in helping a Muslim to learn the Qur’anic message better. Dialoguing with people of other faiths can help one understand one’s religion in a much more meaningful way. After talking to Christians, for instance, I became an inclusivist after having been an exclusivist for a long time. So, yes, dialogue with people of other faiths can really help nurture one’s own spirituality. Getting the privilege of viewing your faith from an outsider’s perspective, provided the perspective is frank, can bea great help!
One of the most significant gains from a frank and meaningful religious would be the lessening, if not the complete elimination, of religious bigotry that underlies tension between followers of different faiths. All religious people want to please their Creator and be at peace with themselves and others. A well-arranged religious dialogue can go a long way in achieving these objectives.
(Khalid Zaheer is a Pakistani Islamic scholar currently based in the UK. He is associated with “Understanding Islam UK”, a non-political charity that aims at spreading what Dr. Zaheer’s personal website calls “a non-sectarian, peace-promoting, and moderate message of Islam based on the two authentic sources of Qur'an and Sunnah”. Prior to joining UIUK, he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the University of Central Punjab (Pakistan), Director of Education at Al-Mawrid, a Pakistani NGO, and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Ethics at Lahore University of Management Sciences)