By: Kassim Ahmad
19 October, 2006
After the 9/11’s attack on the United States and George W. Bush proclaimed his long “War on Terror” and after Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture at the University of Regensburg on 12 September, 2006 where, quoting a 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus’s lie about Islam and Muhammad without refuting him that Islam was evil and spread through violence, not to mention Samuel Huntington’s provocation of “Clash of Civilizations”, it does seem that inter-religious dialogue, leading to better inter-religious understanding, especially between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West, is extremely important.
Such a dialogue has been consciously undertaken towards the end of this century. Whether these dialogues have produced beneficial results or not, are not definitely known. One hopes that they have been beneficial.
It is important to clarify the aims of such a dialogue, because unattainable aims would sour the dialogue and relations between the religious communities, in this case, between he Western and the Muslim Worlds. The aims must therefore be practical and realizable.
The lowest common denominator for two peoples to co-exist side by side is respect and tolerance of each other’s different religions and cultures within which both work for the common good in terms of economic, social, political, intellectual and cultural developments. Differences in religions, cultures and languages need not bar nations from working for the common good. As the Quran says, these differences should lead to more knowledge of each other and consequently better understanding, tolerance and even appreciation.
To achieve respect and tolerance of one another’s religions and way of life -- this is the true aim of religious dialogue. The aim is not to find which is the better religion, yours or mine. Given man’s parochial tendencies, such an aim is virtually impossible to achieve. The true aim of dialogue is for the various religions to co-exist peacefully. The Quran has expressed this manner of relations between believers and disbelievers in the short and pithy Surah 109, thus:-
O you disbelivers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor do you
worship what I worship. Nor will I ever worship what you worship. Nor will I
ever worship what you worship. Nor will you ever worship what I worship.
To you is your religion and to me is my religion.
This is perfect respect and tolerance for the other’s religious beliefs and practices. This teaching became the policy of Muslims administrations towards Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim communities living under them for centuries. There has never been any forced conversion into Islam, as there had been into Christianity.
However, the Jews and the Christians, described as “the People of the Book” in the Quran, out of sheer jealousy, had never accepted Muhammad when he appeared, even though the coming of Muhammad was foretold in the Torah and the Gospel. They distorted the words referring to Muhammad’s advent in order to make them mean something else. This is due to their parochialism. Each of them, Jews and Christians (Jesus, a Jew, was not responsible for this; he foretold Muhammad’s coming), could not accept the fact that other people than them (in this case the Arabs) could be the recipient of a new revelation. This primordial jealousy against Muhammad and against Islam resulted in their centuries-old prejudice, distortions and lies about Muhammad and Islam, bringing about misunderstandings and conflicts, including the long crusades.
However, the Jews’ and the Christians’ persistent attempts at thwarting and killing Islam failed. Islam has a reputation for conquering its conqurers. Today it is the fastest growing religion in Europe and the United States. It is not impossible to visualize a Muslim America and a Muslim Europe in the next thirty years! Lest some people accuse us with parochialism too for wanting to see Islam (“my” religion) triumph in the world, I would quickly disabuse them that this is not the case. We are not automatically enamoured with what we have. In fact, we have severely criticized traditional Islam or the theologians’ Islam. Islam, for us, is the religion approved by God. Its basic teachings are represented in the Quran and the Quran alone. It is God’s Truth. It is comprehensive, simple, practical, logical, rational, beautiful, just and merciful. It is what a noble soul desires from God. That is the only reason we want to see it triumph in the world.
Only in the Twentieth Century did the Judeo-Christian West, in the fullness of its colonialist carrier, become aware that many other cultures, civilizations and religions as great and old, if not greater and older than theirs exist. From that point, they came to realize that they have to co-exist with them. Thus the dialogue of religions and civilizations begin to be consciously pursued.
For Muslims, their sacred book, the Quran, has already taught them this: respect and toleration of others’ religions. They have also been taught that God created differences in peoples in order that they may know one another. They therefore readily accept dialogue. I have, however, to report an exception. In my country Malaysia, there is a standing proposal for an Inter-faith Commission aimed to advise the Government in matters relating religious and ethnic conflicts and relations. Main stream Muslim groups refused to take part in deliberations to form this Commission and when it was proposed to the Government, it refused to consider the proposal. The reason main stream Muslim groups boycotted the earlier deliberations is their presumed fear that the Commission may be used to interfere in the affairs of Islam. It must be stated that such a negative attitude finds no support in the Quran.
Although conscious dialogue through rational argument to establish the truth is supported by the Quran , the Quran also informs us that for most people the truth is not what they want or seek. What they want or seek is comfort with their presuppositions. In other words, they are comfortable with their beliefs, whether those beliefs conform to the truth or not. That is the reason why the Quran advises respect and toleration for others’ religions.
In spite of obstacles in finding the truth in consciously-planned dialogues, there is another dialogue, not consciously planned, that goes on ceaselessly. This is part of the long historical process. This process goes on through human activity in establishing the truth (e.g through divine revelations, through inspired writings like Plato’s dialogues and through inspired scientific discoveries) and through inter-cultural and inter-civilizational contacts between different societies.
There is another way of establishing the truth apart from the rational and historical way. We might call it the spiritual way, that is, through a vow solemnly undertaken, invoking God as our witness. The Quran mentions this method in order to establish the truth regarding Jesus Christ’s death. After giving a brief account of Jesus’s birth, his life-work and his death, around the first and the third of which there is much controversy, the Quran throws out a terrifying challenge to the Christians. Let us hear the Quran’s own words on the matter.
If anyone argues with you, despite the knowledge you have received,
Then say, “Let us summon our children and your children, our women
And your women, ourselves and yourselves, then let us invoke God’s
Curse upon the liars.” Absolutely, this is the narration of the truth.
Absolutely, there is no god except God. Absolutely, God is the
Almighty, Most Wise. If they turn away, then God is fully aware of
The evildoers. Say, “O followers of the scripture, let us come to a logical
Agreement between us and you: that we shall not worship except God;
That we never set up idols besides Him, nor set up any human beings
As lords besides God.” If they turn away, say,”Bear witness that we are
However, this challenge was never accepted by the Christians, to whom it was addressed, either in Prophet Muhammad’s time or in later times. I wonder whether the Muslims of today would dare throw the challenge to the Christians of today. I say this because, the Muslims having broken into sects, in violation of the teachings of the Quran, and having elevated Prophet Muhammad to a position higher that other prophets of God, again in violation of the teachings of the Quran, the Muslims themselves cannot claim that they have not committed the same errors as the Christians or the other religious communities!
Any inter-religious dialogue today would have to deal with two major questions. The first question is one regarding monotheism and polytheism. Under this rubric, we have to deal with subsidiary questions of the Christian belief in the Trinity and related Christian beliefs, and perhaps atheism too. No one can guarantee that such topics can be argued rationally and bear fruit.
The second major question is the practical one, i.e. how the various world communities, religions and civilizations can co-exist peacefully and cooperate to build a just world, without colonialism, without imperialism and without any form of oppression. Two attempts have been made to achieve this aim or part of this aim under Western leadership, i.e. the League of Nations of 1920 and its successor the United Nations of 1945. The first, of course, has failed, to be replaced by the second. By the end of the 20th Century, the second seems to have failed also.
We are now living in a very precarious world of the beginning of the 21st Century, without any mechanism to protect the weak from the strong and without any mechanism to prevent a new World War. Some voices have already proclaimed that we are already in World War IV (the so-called War on Terror, the third being the Cold War). There are at present more than enough fuses to ignite a new World War – North Korea and Iran, not to mention the issue of the long-suffering Palestinians and the newer problems of Western aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another, perhaps more serious problem, that is seldom mentioned, is the utter bankruptcy of the American economy and its serious consequences for the world as a whole. The resurgence of fascism in the U.S. and in Europe during the last decade is a reflection of this deep world financial crisis.
What is going to happen? What can concerned ordinary citizens do? Can inter-religious dialogue help? Inter-religious dialogue, helpful though it is, obviously cannot decide the fate of the world. The fate of the world lies in the hands of its peoples, fighting to promote good and prevent evil. Where is the current world evil? The Bush-defined axis of evil of Iraq-North Korea-Iran is a camouflage to hide the true axis of evil, i.e. U.S.-British-Zionist world hegemony. Many ordinary people worldwide already have knowledge of this hegemony and they have formed resistance movements against it. What Bush and his ilk call terrorists are resistance fighters against this triad hegemony. The failures of the League of Nations and the present United Nations are precisely due to their being manipulated by this imperialist triad.
So, our solution lies in our unflinching resistance to this neo-colonialist triad. But this resistance must also be based on a new philosophy of democratic humanism or republican humanism that can lead the world into a new era of justice and happiness for all mankind.
Kassim Ahmad is a Malaysian freelance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com.