We Beseech of Allah to Bestow His Choicest Blessings and Peace upon our Leader and Master Muhammad, (S.A.W.)
We thank and praise Allah for granting us this blessed opportunity to congregate here in peace and safety on this occasion of Yaumul ul Jumu’ah.
This Jumu’ah coincides with a public holiday in our country. It is one of the benefits we as citizens of this land enjoy and it is an appropriate occasion for us to celebrate our religious and cultural diversity. It is also a time to express our deep appreciation for the freedom we enjoy to practice our religion without any fear or difficulty in this country.
It is also a religious holiday. Good Friday is a day of intense spiritual significance for Christians worldwide. They believe it was the day on which Jesus Christ, whom we as Muslims also greatly revere as one the ambiya, (prophets of Allah, May Allah’s everlasting Peace be upon all of them), was crucified as a way of redeeming for the sins of mankind. This is followed by the celebration of Easter when Jesus was raised from the dead, heralding his victory over sin and death and pointing towards a future Resurrection for all united in him by faith as Romans 6: 5 states.
It is an appropriate occasion for us as Muslims to reflect on how we can promote better relationships, cooperation and dialogue between ourselves and peoples of other faiths in our country.
Religious conflict in a global context
Interfaith Dialogue [IFD] is an absolute necessity in this age of increasing globalization. All of us have to confront the reality of living in a multi-faith, multicultural world, where our differences can at times create confusion, conflict and chaos, and the choices crafted will make life either challenging or fulfilling for all.
Promoting better interfaith links is of increased importance in view of a significant rise in expressions of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and violence against Christian Minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere. The root causes of such behaviors remain ignorance of our own tradition as well as that of the other
I am aware that IFD is not a common topic of discussion in many of our masajid. Merely raising this topic of Interfaith IFD, generates a great deal of skepticism and cynicism amongst all believers, Muslims included.
If we want to effect a change in the current practice and behavior of Muslims we need to be sensitive to the views held by the many and not just be dismissive of it as reflecting ingrained prejudices. Religion forms an integral part of a person’s identity. They may or may not have been exposed to a message of fear or hatred of the other but certainly have it on good record that they are different.
IFD is not about conversions. The key message is always, “remain faithful to your tradition; if you are a Christian become a better Christian, if you are a Muslim become a better Muslim”.
At its core IFD is all about coming to know the next person’s faith with the idea of developing a better understanding of the person or society they come from. It is an opportunity to hear how they construct ideas about themselves and others and how this can gainfully be used to promote development of better relationships across confessional lines. IFD is about reflecting on our own traditions in the encounter with the other and enhancing our understanding and commitment to what we hold dear.
I draw my inspiration for guidance on how Muslims should engage with IFD from several sources.
- Our foundational sources of the Qur’an and the Authentic traditions of the Prophet of Allah [ PBUH ]
- Our own experience of dealing with people of other faiths
- From the reflections of some scholars in the Mystical tradition of Islam.
- From the reflections of contemporary Theologians and Scholars of Religion who are also actively involved in IFD.
A number of verses in the Qur’an have been identified by various scholars as forming the core of what it tries to convey concerning the existence of a plurality of religions and how they should interact with one another.
I have for my own understanding sought to divide these verses into three broad groups;
- verses which implicitly promote IFD. Lays foundation for religious pluralism and IFD.
- verse 5:48 which gives explicit recognition of religious pluralism and IFD
- verses which emphasize an exclusivist position: opposite of religious pluralism
In the first constellation of verses, I have tried to distill some key ideas.
As time is limited, I will not refer to each verse in detail
For now, however I draw your attention to the highlighted areas below;
2 : 143 And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you. And We did not make the qiblah which you used to face except that We might make evident who would follow the Messenger from who would turn back on his heels. And indeed, it is difficult except for those whom Allah has guided. And never would Allah have caused you to lose your faith. Indeed Allah is, to the people, Kind and Merciful.
This verse characterizes the Muslim Ummah as a witness over other nations and as a justly balanced community, following a moderate path in life and establishes a just mean between the inward and the outward, law and spirit, between this life and otherworldliness.
21 : 107. And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.
Implies Muslims must act with mercy and compassion over others as Much as the mission of the Prophet of Allah was a mercy unto all mankind.
2 : 213. Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path.
All of human kind was endowed with one message from One Divine Authority. None have an exclusive hold onto the truth. Unity of God underscores unity of mankind.
2: 62 Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] – those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.
Salvation is not only for Muslims but all doers of good, and truthful and righteous people.
3: 85 And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.
“Islam” or submission to Divine authority is the one core principle which runs through all of them.
5: 48. Is perhaps at the heart of the Qur’anic teachings on Religious Pluralism and IFD.
I draw your attention to the highlighted areas. [see below]
وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَٰكِن لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ ۖ فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ ۚ إِلَى اللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.
What is of crucial concern to us here are the following issues
- Each community has been given a law and an open way to express themselves
- Allah has deliberately willed that there be differences in religion.
- There is Divine intentionality at play here; this is not a random act; it is there as a challenge for us to face
- There is an instruction for us to reach out in a healthy competitive spirit, challenging ourselves, and others, in promoting virtue.
- There are several other verses of similar import. [ References 11: 118, 16:93, 42:8 ]
The key question to ask how is it possible to remain faithful to the religious tradition one was brought up in and yet be able to engage respectfully with other people of different faiths.
- It is in the key phrase فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ [ fastabiqul khairat ] , translated in 2 versions below as
· “so race to [all that is] good.”
· “ vie then with one another in doing good works,”
that one finds a possible answer.
It tells everyone to accept the fact that Allah Created diverse religious communities as part of His Divine Wisdom and places these differences as a challenge [ ‘to test you’, لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ ]
to them to prove how faithful you are to your bequeathed tradition; to show your fealty to the principles of your tradition by striving to do good or promoting virtue.
For Rashid Rida in particular, “differences, among religious communities should be an occasion to compete in good deeds, and not for fanatic deeds breeding hostility and among people of different faiths”. Belonging to a faith groups is not enough to be associated with an external identity alone; the call is made to add some character to it by cultivating virtuous deeds.
‘fastabiqul khairat,’ as shown indicates that the Qur’an provides a key directive here to be pursued, striving to cultivate virtue, aiming for the higher ethical objectives and working for the good of all of Creation.
- Activities such as these transcend ethnic, racial, language and evens confessional boundaries.
But it is equally my contention that this term is capable of generating multiple meanings. Traditionally all human acts have been divided into ibadat (worship) and muamalat (social interaction). That which is an act of service to God and that which is an act of service to human beings.
Fakhruddin ar Razi ; Whole of Islam is two things, Worshipping One God, serving humanity.
As people of faith we make the common error of defining ourselves solely by our religious identity. There are many more layers to this identity and include our roles as friends, neighbors, team players, workers, employees, employers, consumers, producers, professionals, colleagues, teachers, learners, parents, families, youth etc.
In all these multiple roles, the key questions always are:
- do we act with honesty, integrity, love, compassion, dedication?
- do we prize our identity above the virtue we must strive for?
- Does our religious identity help us or hinder us in treating everyone equally or mistakenly cause us to discriminate?
- Is that acceptable to a Just and Merciful Allah?
I now want to share with you some of our experiences as parents, as a father and a mother and our engagement with the teachers and administrators of the school we sent our children to.
It goes without saying we all want what is best for our children. When it came to the choice of their schools, we searched high and low and when the best choice fell onto a Catholic school, we embraced it, and in all honesty, I must say with some trepidation.
Very soon however we learnt, that what mattered more for the progress and happiness of our children, was not how staunchly religious we were, but about day to day issues of raising them and ensuring that they do well and gain the maximum from their presence there.
The common language amongst parents was not about prayers and liturgies but rather mundane issues of navigating the way through traffic in the mornings, importance of children being punctual, properly uniformed, all homework done, all projects completed, all fund raising contributed to; in other words, in that little community we spoke one language of care and attention to the most precious gift God Almighty has Blessed us with.
Sending our children to a school with a predominantly Catholic ethos, did not disadvantage our children for the teachers saw them as learners, not as an occasion to evangelize but to teach and to care for them, accepting them as a trust before God. That is what endeared them to us and, what increased our respect for what they were striving for.
They were in fact practicing virtue or a fastabiqul khairat. They had power over our children but practiced restraint and did not employ any subtle means to cause our children to doubt the veracity and beauty of the faith tradition in which they were raised at home.
We became an integral part of that community and did not just have an instrumental relationship with the school thinking just about what we could get out of the school. We felt that being engaged in this manner was a better form of da’wa (invitation to Islam). We did not know it then, but that was our fastabiqul khairat!
Over a period of time teachers, administrators and, other parents, realized we shared the same concerns as they had; we read from the same page despite coming from different faith backgrounds. Our faiths were not accidental but rather integral to everything we did; it drove the whole process and yet caused no one to feel uncomfortable in the presence of the other. When the time came to express what our particular faith, theology and spirituality taught us, they were ready to listen in a constructive and an engaged mode to what we had to say.
One day my eldest son came home with a project: “what does Islam have to say about Mary, the Mother of Jesus?” He had a very well read and astute Catholic teacher. She wanted to draw him out and discover just how far his budding spirituality has progressed.
She was not only surprised; it also touched her emotionally which my son later described as, “daddy, my teacher cried when she heard these words from the Qur’an.”
One surprise leads to another. Shortly thereafter, he was describing the Muslim fasting or saum at a service in the Chapel and, before the end of that year, for the first time in the 100 year history of the school’s existence, Muslims learners were able to say their Thuhr and Jumua’ah prayers, both on campus and off campus respectively.
These Catholics demonstrated a confidence in their faith, and a profound generosity and respect towards the faiths of others, creating a space for others to practice their faiths, as a recognition that God in His Wisdom had so willed that we follow different faiths, following diverse paths, yet able to reach Him; a beautiful lesson indeed for all of us to emulate.
Today is the first day of a glorious long weekend. We all long to be with our families, to spend time with them, and the last thing on our minds would be to be at work, doing the same thing we do every day of the year. Well, I also thought like that until one day when my youngest son, who was serving his internship at Tygerberg Academic Hospital taught me something which gave an entirely new meaning to Muslim-Christian relationships, to IFD, to fastabiqul khairat.
He together with his fellow Muslim interns decided that they were going to sacrifice their Easter weekend holiday, work all the shifts on the roster and let their Christian colleagues have the time off to be with their families and congregations for as he put it, “Easter, we learnt at CMRM, is of far greater spiritual significance for Christians than evens Christmas.”
Suddenly having religious diversity at the workplace is a hidden blessing we never thought of existed.
I can carry on and give you many more examples of practical and personal encounters with people of other faiths and how enriched one feels when you see the beautiful respect for our common humanity being displayed. When we reciprocate they too feel as honored and loved and respected as we do.
Remember people will soon forget what you do for them, or what you give them of your possessions, but long will they remember how you make them feel!
IFD is between people and not between religions. If we understand something about how religion and faith gets ingrained within an individual, how it shapes that person’s thinking and behavior, then perhaps we will move IFD in a more positive and fruitful direction.
Faith is all about the relationship between any human being and The Supreme or Transcendent Being who is the Creator of everything.
Just how does faith find its way within an individual? To answer that question, we need to know who we are and also who our Allah or our Creator is. The tradition of the Prophet Muhammad , May Allah’s everlasting peace be upon him, is so appropriate here:
“He who knows himself , comes to know his Lord”.
· Each individual, Muslims believe, has been blessed with a soul or a spirit called a ruh which entered our being at a primordial stage of our development. An inalienable part of this ruh, is called a fïtrah. This is the part of a person’s spiritual core which is unchanging.
· Changing one’s religious affiliation does not change one’s fitrah. It remains the same.
· The fitrah always desires connecting with the guidance which comes from the Supreme Being from time to time in the form of Revelation (nuzul). This ruh or fitrah is the same ruh or fitrah in every individual.
Our Allah is One
· Allah is One in His Essence.
· He has no partner in His Essence
· This Essence is beyond human comprehension.
· Through His Mercy, it is made knowable and graspable through His, Names, Qualities and Attributes.
There is nothing else like Him in existence.
· The Unity of God’s Essence manifests as Multiplicity of His Names, Qualities and Attributes. Similarly, is the case with His Creation of Man and Religions.
· Each human being carries the same ruh or Fitrah God has placed in all other human beings, yet they can differentiate into countless different forms or potentialities.
· Similarly, all religions originate from one Divine Source, and eventually grow into different manifestations depending on their circumstances. Thus, both human beings and religions, start as one [Unity] and evolve into many [ Multiplicity ].
The implication for IFD is to recognize the Unity behind seeming Multiplicity. This is in essence what is captured by the Qur’anic verse
وَلِلَّهِ الْمَشْرِقُ وَالْمَغْرِبُ ۚ فَأَيْنَمَا تُوَلُّوا فَثَمَّ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ
And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah. Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing. 2: 115
IFD is therefore nothing else but an attempt to discover the underlying Unity pervading a Multiplicity of different religious forms.
One can develop a blind spot for the common or universal values of other faiths if the focus is only the exclusive teachings of any one tradition. Remaining for a long time, confined within one particular tradition is like living and swimming in a fish-bowl. Everything but the frame of the bowl is visible to the fish. It lives within it, it can see clearly yet the limiting edge of its world is invisible, hidden in plain sight to it.
This ruh or spirit yearns to grow and get closer to the source it took its origin from. This vertical journey of the spirit encounters the horizontal, resisting force of the ego. Where the spirit and the ego intersect, that is the location of the qalb or spiritual center [a center of intense and enhanced perception] of a human-being. The spirit tries to reach to higher goals, to strive towards integrity but the ego pulls it back to act selfishly and negatively.
Power never develops in a vacuum and the counter force or resistance offered by the ego is essential for the spirit to develop its strength. A strong spirit recognizes God’s face wherever it turns.
Higher states of spiritual development lead to greater awareness of God’s constant Self Disclosure or Theophany or tajalli. The famous hadith qudsi declares, Allah Almighty describing Himself as
“I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known, therefore I created the world.”
A highly developed encounter of this kind is the Divine Self Disclosure experienced by saints and prophets. That’s what makes them visionaries and beacons of guidance for humanity at large.
In realizing his or a her particular level of perfection, a perfected human being [al- insan al-kamil ] mirrors the process by which the ‘hidden treasure‘ of the Divine Essence comes to manifest itself. The similitude of a mirror is very apt here. An object can be reflected in a mirror. It does not change the qualities of the object if its image is reflected in the mirror. The mirror remains a mirror and the object remain an object. In that sense God and Creation remain separate yet close. The better developed the human soul, the greater the capacity to reflect Divine qualities such as those of Love, Compassion, Mercy, Forgiveness, Generosity etc.
Current state of Interfaith Dialogue
Just how are believers of all faiths currently shaping up in their relationship with one another?
They adopt one of four positions.
- At the one extreme, some believers hold onto absolutist positions. They believe they are the only rightly guided people and hence sole possessors of all truths.
- On the other extreme there are those who seek accommodation at all costs. They emphasize core values between religions which have universal appeal ignoring individual differences between religions.
- Between these extreme views lies a group lies two further groups. The first one believes that their religion is the truest religion and that other religions have at least some elements of the truth. These believers feel confident that they could, without any further dialogue and study, just know how the other religions measure up to their own—clearly deficient, but still to be respected nevertheless. No effort is made to learn about other traditions.
- The fourth group are convinced and committed believers of their own traditions but who are still largely ignorant about other religious traditions. Consequently, they are actively engaged in dialogue getting to know and understand what other believers affirm as true before making any judgments about the validity of their beliefs.
There is yet another way of conceiving differences between religions. This involves acknowledging their ontological unity as a source for the diversity or multiplicity they display. In their multiplicity there is implicit Unity. How does it achieve this?
It conceives of all religions arising from one source or from one central point.
Graphically illustrated it thinks of all religions
- Emanating from central point on a circle.
- Different religious traditions are envisaged as radii traversing outwards
- At their core or origin, they share similar characteristics.
- Closer to the center the radii are approximated. The further they extend to the periphery, the greater the distance between the radii.
- This physical distance is a metaphor for the corresponding similarity or difference between the various traditions.
- Each radius (tradition) is thus composed of an inner part, the Universal Essence and a outer part which gives it its unique flavor. It shares a common set of teachings or values with other traditions yet it also has that which is particular to itself.
This kind of configuration allows one to accept a unity of all religious expressions yet also simultaneously allows one to respect the individual differences inherent in each tradition.
One can thus be faithful the universal teachings or values of each tradition and yet remain faithful to the exclusive emphases which each also brings forth. This is done without sacrificing the integrity of each tradition.
Let me end this discussion by quoting from the noble traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, May Allah’s everlasting Peace and Blessings be upon him, His Noble Progeny and his illustrious companions. It addresses 2 fundamental human preoccupations.
- To exclude, banish, marginalize, ostracize, anathematize, to pronounce who is included and who is excluded from God’s acceptance as a true believer.
- The second is its opposite; who needs God more, the saint or the struggling sinner?
Shirk or Polytheism
Referring to the human propensity to commit shirk or ascribing partners to Allah, The Prophet of Allah acknowledges that shirk can be obvious as idolatry, yet it can also be subtle and weave its way into the sincerity and integrity of worship of any Muslim.
“ The creeping of shirk in my community is more hidden (akhfa) than the creeping of a black ant on a hard rock on a dark (moonless) night.” [Musnad of Ibn Hambal][ Tabarsi]
Muslims should therefore always be utterly cautious and always be on their guard never to allow excessive pride or a chauvinistic appeal [ which is a form of self-worship and therefore shirk ] to develop in their worship and interaction with others.
Absolute dependence on Divine Rahma
Allah’s first two names and of his Highest attributes, Rahman and Rahim, The Merciful, The Ultimately Compassionate, are the Highest source hope for any human being. The biggest sinner is not the one who commits the most heinous crime, but the one says there is no hope for me.
We respect the common origin of all religions. They are all paths Created by One Allah. They differ in their external forms. In spirit they are one.
- All human beings are endowed with same fitrah as part of their ruh or soul.
- It is this fitrah which does not change whether you are Christian or Muslim. It is what returns to Allah.
- Worship of the self turns you into a poorer version of what you could be one day.
- IFD sensitizes you to spirit over form, prevents chauvinistic attitudes developing, instills humility and gratitude for what you have been blessed with. Makes you realize the value of what you have.
Take home message
- Call people Christian, Jewish etc. Avoid term “non-Muslim” for they are not ‘non persons’
- Avoid harsh labelling of others. It is judgmental and hurtful. Rather say we differ. That is more respectful. Akin to someone calling us heathen. We dislike that.
- Understand the Qur’anic principle of fastabiqul khairat : cultivate, spread virtue. Distinguish yourself by deeds not by religious identity.
- At a metaphysical level we are one; all endowed with same ruh and
- Be a mirror to reflect Divine Tenderness, Mercy, and Love
- Come to that which is common between us; Let that help set a common agenda to eradicate poverty, inequality, corruption, oppression, climate change, moral degeneracy etc.
The following sources were extensively used.
1). Siddiqui, Mona, Christians, Muslims and Jesus. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013
2). Volf, Miroslav, Allah, A Christian Response. New York: Harper Collins, 2011
3). Boullata, Isa. Fa-stabiqu’l-Khairat: A Qur’anic Principle of Interfaith Relations in Haddad,
Yvonne Yazbeck and Haddad, Wadi, Christian-Muslim Encounters. Gainesville: University
Press Florida, 1995
4). Sachedina, Abdulaziz. The Qur’an and other religions, in McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, The