There is much talk about inter-religious dialogue these days. Inter-religious dialogue is, of course, to be welcomed. But we need to be clear on some very basic issues. One of the most important of these is: What exactly should be the basis of this sort of dialogue?
I believe that the basis of all inter-religious dialogue should be to discuss how important questions about life have been answered by different religious traditions: Who is our Creator and Benefactor, and how can we serve Him? Whom should we resort to in our moments of vulnerability, and how? Why is there injustice in life, and why doesn't the Creator remove it? Why are moral principles not respected? How should one behave when they get violated? What is going to happen to us after we die? And so on.
Because these questions are a common concern of all human beings and because each religious tradition comes up with answers to these questions, inter-religious dialogue can enable the participants from these traditions to know what answers others have to such questions. This could be a learning experience of immense value.
Besides this, inter-religious dialogue is important in order to promote peace and harmony in society as a whole. Such dialogue also helps to establish friendly social relations, peace and harmony between people of different faiths, enabling them to have a good understanding of each others' points of view. For Muslims, this can help them to more easily and effectively convey to the latter the message of Islam.
It needs to be made clear here that, if done genuinely, dawah, or inviting others to one's faith, can never be a one-way process. The person inviting others to his faith should also make himself genuinely available for the possibility of getting converted to the other faith. If it is not a potentially two-way process, then the exercise must stop. In a meaningful religious dialogue, one participant informs another about what he thinks is the truth, and the other, in turn, does likewise. Both should be sincere in learning more about the truth for the dialogue exercise to be meaningful. And if that is the case, both should allow themselves the possibility of conversion to the other view.
In this sense, then, dialogue and dawah can go together. They are not mutually-contradictory. If accepting and following religion is done for the purpose of knowing the truth, and all participants are equally clear about this purpose, and the dialogue is conducted wisely, there should be no contradiction between the expectations of inter-religious dialogue and dawah. However, if the purpose of the dialogue is to prove the superiority of one ideology over another, and if the dialogue is conducted in an emotional, aggressive manner, the purpose of establishing better relations between people of different faith traditions will be negatively affected.
Recently, someone mentioned to me, “In the ‘pre-modern’ period in South Asia, there were several Sufi and Bhakta spiritual seekers who entered into what, to use a modern term, could be called ‘dialogue’ with each other. They established close personal relations, learnt from each other and sometimes lived together. Some of them accepted spiritual preceptors from the other “community”.’
Is this an appropriate way of promoting inter-community harmony and understanding? Is this an appropriate way of dealing with religious differences?
I think that there are some good things to learn from the attitude of our elders in the sub-continent, but there are other aspects that need to be avoided. The good aspect of behaviour of the Bhaktas and Sufis was in the manner they showed respect to each other, the peace and harmony they promoted, and the concern for the needs of humans they displayed, irrespective of an individual's faith. What needs to be avoided, however,is the confusion that this closeness can sometimes generate—for instance, the understanding that the truth can be sought in various different ways, with each way being a legitimate path leading to God.
I believe that religious pluralism expressed in this manner is damaging to the cause of seeking truth, which is what the purpose of religion should be. There can only be one correct path leading to God. Other paths are either degenerated forms of the true path or are not correct at all. God has clearly expressed His desire from time to time to be worshiped and served through His prophets. All prophets came with the same message. However, with the passage of time, the message got contaminated with innovations. A genuine religious reform must always seek to find the pristine way God has desired to be followed to achieve His pleasure and salvation in the afterlife.
However, God is kind, wise, and just. Therefore, He only expects from human beings behaviour which they can possibly manage within the limitations of their potential. The Qur'an says: "Indeed those who believe and do good deeds—We shall not make any soul accountable beyond its capacity—such are the inhabitants of the paradise; they shall live therein forever" (7:42)