In a world where people of different faiths and ideologies interact closely with each other, dialogue is a very important imperative. Islam lays great stress on dialogue. The Qur'an requires us to invite people towards the path of our Lord intelligently, and if there is a debate, it should be conducted in a decent way. (16:125). The Quran also asks Muslims to debate with the People of the Book in a polite manner: It says: "And do not debate with the People of the Book except in a polite way" (29:46). God wants us to discuss the points of commonality first, before moving on to differences of opinion: "Say, People of the Book, come to common terms between us and you" (3:64). All this indicates the importance that Islam gives to dialogue and reasoned, polite discussion about religious issues with people of other faiths.
Some people may claim that because of the Islamic belief that Islam alone is the authentic, uncorrupted religion in the world today, it is inimical to dialogue. But this argument is not tenable. The fact that Islam is the only truth is the belief of Muslims. It is not shared by non-Muslims. Some non-Muslims, such as many Christians, have the same view about their own religion. For Muslims to believe in their claim and to invite others also to accept it, the only correct way is to exchange their arguments with others in a fair manner. It is only when they do it through a meaningful dialogue that the veracity of their claim is likely to emerge. Truth is not a slogan which, when it is loudly made, makes others aware of it. Instead, it is a reality which profoundly affects the mind and the heart of an individual. I cannot make others aware of my truth unless I present it properly, allowing it to be critically examined and compared with what others consider to be true. It is only through a process of honest, genuine discussion that truth can emerge properly.
The Qur'an informs us that the Prophet was asked to follow exactly the same process. It says: ‘Ask them: Bring down from God a scripture that is a better guide than these two and I will follow it, if what you say is true’ (28:49).
Some people may claim that since Islam is a missionary religion and Muslims are commanded to engage in dawah or inviting others to the path of Islam, Muslims cannot engage in genuine dialogue. They may contend that if Muslims believe that other religions are false or corrupted, they cannot live in harmony with people of other faiths.
But this argument, too, is unreasonable. Muslims believe that the prophet of Islam was the last messenger of God, not the first one. It is a part of the requirement of their faith that they believe in all messengers of God. The Qur'an testifies that Taurat (Torah), Zubur (Psalms), and Injil (Gospels) are all God's books. It refers to these books to make its arguments effective for the People of the Book.
The Qur'an also tells us that Adam and Noah were also chosen by God as His prophets. It mentions many prophets who brought God's message to this world. Some of them have been mentioned by name in the Qur’an, while many others have not been mentioned by name. When Muslims engage in dialogue with people belonging to other faiths, in many cases they engage in the exercise of talking to people who have accepted messages of God that reached them through other prophets. It is their task to help their fellow believers in God who are following messages that reached them through other sources to know properly that Islam is the final version of it. This task cannot be accomplished except through a genuine, meaningful dialogue.
Some people may say that while Islam can tolerate other People of the Book, it has no such tolerance for others—‘polytheists’ such as Hindus, Buddhists etc Hence, they may contend, Islam does not envisage any possibility for dialogue and harmonious relations with people who are not considered People of the Book by Muslims.
This argument too is incorrect. Going by the Qur'anic description of the history of prophets, there is a possibility that Hinduism is an altered form of the message of Noah and his followers. All religious traditions have undergone degeneration through innovations in its beliefs and practices. Many Muslims have also changed the pristine message of Islam to a version of it that is very different and distorted from the original. Such changes do happen with time. It is the role of religious reformers to bring religion back to its pristine form. Muslim reformers have been doing it within Muslim communities. Likewise, the task has to be undertaken in non-Muslim communities. In both cases, the method of reform ought to be undertaken intelligently, politely, and gradually. And a good way of doing it is through religious dialogue.
From an Islamic perspective, someone might ask, is it possible for Muslims to respect other religions (as distinct from respecting followers of these religions as fellow human beings), especially since religions other than Islam are, according to Islam, false or corrupted?
My answer is that some parts of almost all religions are worthy of respect—for instance, some ethical principles they contain or some of their key figures who were or may have been prophets sent by God. Muslims should show open respect to those aspects of their traditions that are unanimously acceptable to all religions, and should stay quiet or find opportunities to intelligently criticize the other parts which they disagree with without showing disrespect.
While asking believers to not use abusive language for the false gods of others lest they should use the same language for God, the Qur’an clarifies why these differences have occurred in these words: "Thus we have made attractive to each nation their deeds" (6:108). In other words, since each community is emotionally attached to its religious views, and this has happened in accordance with God's own policy, there is no reason to insult them by using impolite language against them. However, since Muslims must also uphold the message which they believe is the truth, they should also find ways of communicating its correctness to people belonging to other faiths.
How to handle religious differences is thus an issue that must be very sensitively handled in inter-religious dialogue. This is related to the issue of respect for the dialogue partner. Respect is a basic principle to be followed in inter-religious dialogue. But respect for what? Does it mean respecting other religions in their entirety—including all their beliefs and practices, some of which we may not at all agree with? Or does it mean respecting the right of their adherents to follow them? Or is it about respecting people of other faiths as fellow creatures of God?
The fact is that we cannot respect what we think is wrong. But we can respect the fact that what people believe is what they think is right. In other words, we respect their right to freely choose their belief. Further, all humans deserve to be respected as God's creatures who have descended from the same ancestors. We all share two important commonalities that strongly bind all humans as a mutually caring and respecting human community: the same one God, and our same primal ancestors.
At the same time, we must critique the tendency among religious communities to force their adherents to blindly follow the traditional path of their elders. Freedom of choice must be respected. That, in turn, necessitates free availability of information and freedom of speech. Muslims are performing poorly in the domain of freedom of choice. If they want others to be allowed freedom of converting to Islam, they must allow their own people the choice of converting to other faiths.
One important reason why there is little freedom of choice among Muslims is the law that requires apostates to be killed. Clearly, it is not an Islamic law. However, many Muslims believe it to be a part of Islamic Shari'ah. To believe that Muslim apostates must face death is at odds with the Muslim aspiration to convert others to their faith. If they want to have the latter facility, they must revisit their stance on the former