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Interview (07 Feb 2017 NewAgeIslam.Com)


On Da'wah and Dialogue


By Yusuf Jha, New Age Islam

07 February 2017

Yusuf Jha currently works as a translator/trainee Mufti at the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (AWQAF, Abu Dhabi), wherein he specializes in matters related to the local English speaking community. Engaged in a pastoral role as a leader of Friday prayers/Sermons, being authorized to deliver one of the few English Friday sermons in the region, he promotes a non-sectarian, and non-violent methodology of Islam rooted in its classical and spiritual traditions, positively engaged with society, and appreciative of human diversity. He speaks to Victor Edwin SJ, Editor of Salaam.

VE: What does Islam say about dialogue? Can you please elaborate with the help of references to the Quran and Hadith?

YJ: There are few Divine Books that are as comprehensive as the Qur'an when it comes to referencing the manner of dialogue to be employed between adherents of different faith-communities. The Qur'an explicitly says:

Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful instruction, and discuss with others in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His Path, and who receives guidance. [Qur'an 16:125]

The beauty and wisdom that the Qur'an refers to in the above verse as the manner to be embodied when "calling to God" has been alternatively called the "way of the heart" by many Islamic Scholars. This way is reflected in the Arabic phrase, "Lisaanulhaalablaghu Min Lisaan Al Maqaal", i.e. literally "the tongue of someone's state is more eloquent than their words". It is for this reason that the mystic Ibn Ataillah Al Iskandari (1276 – 1309 AD) famously posited that all "Speech emerges garbed in the raiment of the heart from which it proceeds."

As such, the beauty the Qur'an is referring to, is a heartfelt one which by its nature precludes sophistry and entails sincerity. It also requires humility, for as the Qur'an emphasizes, it is God's role to judge who is "rightly guided" and who has "gone astray".

This means that to speak ill of the other is not the way of the Believer in Islam, for in an authenticated saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him), he is reported to have said: “The believer is not a slanderer, nor does he curse others, and nor is he immoral or shameless.” [Tirmidhi].

The Prophet also alluded to the fact that all words carry weight, for just as: "A goodly word is an act of charity." [Bukhari and Muslim], to give into spiteful dissension is to give into the worst of us, as the Qur'an says: And tell My servants to say that which is best. Indeed, Satan induces [dissension] among them. Indeed Satan is ever, to mankind, a clear enemy. [Qur'an 17:53]

Thus, Islam enjoins upon its adherents the general imperative of speaking kindly, stating: And speak to people in a manner that is well [Qur'an 2:83].This is because it holds that the need to be cognizant about what one says goes hand in hand with the accountability of God's judgment, for the Prophet said: Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak in a goodly manner or refrain by being silent.[Bukhari and Muslim].

So in summary, the above indicates the general attitude that the Muslim is encouraged to hold in dialogue, namely: sincerity, humility, kindly demeanour and a compassionate, heartfelt wisdom.

VE:     Some people may claim that because of the Islamic belief that Islam alone is the true, uncorrupted religion, it is inimical to dialogue. What do you have to say?

YJ: Far from being inimical to dialogue, the Qur'an celebrates dialogue and diversity, affirming that differentiation, within mankind, in respect of gender, tribe, race, and even religion, serves a contemplative function that allows one to draw closer to God, stating:

O Mankind, truly We have created you from a Male and Female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. Truly the most noble of you, in the sight of God, is the most God-Conscious. [Qur'an 49:13]

Distinction and difference between people are thus affirmed by the Qur'anic world-view as being divinely willed and intended to be a means by which the consciousness of God is attained. The phrase "that you may know one another”, in Arabic, Ta‘ârafû, is reflexive, entailing that one knows not just the other, but oneself through the other, and at a deeper level coming to ultimately know God through the process. This is why the root word for this sense of knowing, is the same root, ‘Arafa, used for the disclosure of Divine Reality or Gnosis, termed Ma‘rifah in Arabic. Thus Islam posits that contemplation on the differences between oneself and others is intended to ultimately lead to realization of the Unicity of the One bringing about such differences, as the famous mystic Yahya Ibn Mu'adh Al Razi (830–871 AD)said: man ‘Arafana Fsahu Faqad ‘Arafa Rabbahu–"one who truly knows himself, knows his Lord". Thus Islam's position is that self-knowledge and knowledge of the other are interwoven and complementary, being integrated in an over-arching knowledge of God. In that regards, the goal of dialogue in Islam is not to assert one world-view over the other, but instead to see the process of dialogue, like all forms of relationship, as a Mirror of Consciousness pointing towards the Divine, eventually allowing for the means of self-realization, and the ultimate realization of God. Hence in contradistinction to being inimical to dialogue, such an approach instead celebrates and welcomes dialogue as an ever-present opportunity to discover the Divine, for as the Qur'an states:

Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God [Qur'an 2:115]

VE:  Some people may claim that since Islam is a missionary religion, and since Muslims are commanded to engage in Dawah, Muslims cannot genuinely engage in 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. What is your response?

YJ: The word Da'wah means to invite and as mentioned previously Muslims are indeed enjoined to "Call to the way of the Lord" [Qur'an 16:125] in ways that are best through their hearts and not just their words. However such a calling is not a missionary endeavour intended to increase numbers of a particular faith community, but a call to the essential Truth of the nature of being. Thus, if done properly, this "calling" itself pre-empts disharmony with other people, as it aids self-discovery and love for greater humanity. 

This can be evidenced by Qur'anic advice on the manner in which such a "calling" is to be operationalized wherein it states:

Say: "O People of the Book! Come to a Word Common between us and you: That we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God." If they then turn back, say you: "Bear witness that we are Muslims (submitting ourselves to God’s Will) [Qur'an 3:64].

Some Qur'anic exegetes and Islamic Scholars have argued that this verse posits the methodological principle that prioritizes Muslims to call People of the Book to the pristine monotheism of Islam first. Others however assert that this verse alludes to a pre-existing commonality, that such perception of the One-ness of God is already a Common Word and that the intent of this verse is to ensure that any discussion is to be held within the fabric of this commonality. Support for this second opinion can be found in the verse below:

And discuss not with the People of the Book unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender[Qur'an 29:46].

In the above verse the Qur'an instructs Muslims that as a concomitant to believing in a similar historicity of revelation as the People of the Book they also believe in the same God and accordingly should tell them: ‘Our God (Iilāhunā) and your God (ilāhukum) is One’. The fact that Muslims are instructed to state this as a matter of fact and not as a postulate that needs to be proven is consistent with the Qur'anic world-view that regards Abraham, the patriarch of the Judeo-Christian tradition, alongside other Prophets such as Noah, Moses and Jesus, as being Muslim, i.e. those who submitted themselves to God.

How does such an opinion reconcile the seeming ineradicable theological differences between Christians and Muslims? Needless to say, Muslims do not agree with a doctrinal belief in the Trinitarian monotheism: the Father, Son and Spirit; nor do they accept the idea of God incarnate or the notion of a redemptive Divine Sacrifice.

The response some Scholars would provide is that the Qur'an is drawing attention to a commonality despite these differences. In other words the Qur'an is positing that the Ontological experience of God (i.e. the universal experience of His Being) is a common one and can unite us, and should be given precedence over Theological matters that inevitably highlight difference. As an approach this may have a point as most theologians would perhaps readily concede that depending on the degree of exhaustive discussion intended, theology often gives birth to significant intra-theological differences even amongst groupings of  one's own co-religionists, let alone those of another faith.

Thus Islam's orientation is that of giving priority to ontological experience and introspective orientation above dogma and creed, such an attitude being highly pertinent to the theme of dialogue. The verb used to denote someone who doesn’t display such openness of spirit ista’assaba, literally signifying binding a cloth around one’s head. The metaphor thus illustrates that such an attitude is tantamount to becoming self-enwrapped, with each fold of the cloth compounding the initial preoccupation with one’s own frame of identity; thereby becoming imprisoned within a mental “fabric” woven by one’s own prejudices. Hence Islam's position is that true dialogue takes place outside of the egoic framework of our identities, that to identify in a quasi-absolute manner with one's family, the nation, or even the religion to which one belongs, entails then that we then give the “other”— to whatever degree—a quasi-absolute character of "otherness" – a sense of separation that prevents true connection. How many times is it precisely such exclusivist notions of “self” and “other” that contribute to the dynamics of suspicion and fear, fanaticism, and conflict?

People concerned with dialogue and coexistence in the modern world could indeed benefit this Islamic perspective. For not only does this approach —even on a discursive plane—help dissolve the fixations on selfhood that give rise to pride and arrogance, they also, more directly, at both an individual and collective level, bring about, in the heart of one who is receptive, a penetrating sense of the ephemerality of all things, including, crucially, the ego and its variegated forms of identity.

VE:  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., and that Islam gives them just two choices—death or conversion to Islam. Hence, they may contend, Islam does not envisage any possibility for dialogue and harmonious relations with people who are not considered by Muslims to be Ahl-e Kitab. What do you have to say?

YJ: The phrase People of the Scripture or Ahl-al-Kitab is an honorific, as in to say "Fellow People of a Revealed Scripture", being indicative of a type of kindred-ness more expansive than one's immediate faith community. Whilst some Islamic Scholars have confined the term to Jews and Christians only, most Muslims (as represented by the majoritarian Hanafi and Shafi Schools) consider the term to refer to any people who may have followed a Prophet and who may have had access to a revealed scripture. This second definition makes an allowance for the possibility that most religions in some form or the other would qualify as being deserving of that status of kindred brotherhood. It is for this reason that seminal Jurists of Islam such as Imam Shafi (820 AD) advocated the status of Ahl-al-Kitab for Zoroastrians in Persia and also why the two primary dynasties of Islam, i.e. the Umayyad and the Abbasid, regarded Buddhists as Ahl-al-Kitab likewise. Hence historically the claim that Islam gives the choice of only "death or conversion" to other than Jews or Christians is simply not true: India being a prime example (Hindus and other faith communities were predominantly treated as being people of scripture).

This willingness to accommodate the "other" is particularly commendable when we bear in mind that in the pre-modern world it was the norm to construe the "other" along civilisational fault-lines defined by religion. In contradistinction to this attitude the great imperial Islamic dynasties of the past, from the Umayyad to the Ottoman, were in their own diverse ways not only globalizing but also plural, and their honouring of the protection-covenants of minorities allowed for those minorities to evolve flourishing cultural and spiritual lives of their own. Examples such as the golden age of Sephardic Jewish culture under eleventh-century Andalusia (Maimonides being a prime example) or the Orthodox churches under the Ottomans support this point.

VE:    From an Islamic perspective, do you think 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?

YJ: Islam posits and presents itself in the most part in existential terms, i.e. submission to One-ness of God, is already the nature and pattern of the universe. The Qur'an says:

Seek they other than the religion of God, when unto Him submits whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly? And unto Him they will be returned [Qur'an 3:83].

Hence the word “Islam” is mostly recited and understood in the Qur'an by Scholars in terms of its universal, existential and not communal, identity-bound application. It for this reason, as previously mentioned, that throughout Islamic history— various religious groups such as Buddhists, Hindus and Zoroastrians, alongside the Abrahamic faiths of Jews and Christians —were regarded by Muslims not as pagans, polytheists, or atheists, but as followers of an authentic religion, and thus granted official Dhimmi status, that is, they were to be granted official protection by the state authorities: wherein any violation of their religious, social or legal rights was subject to the ‘censure’ (Dhimma) of the Muslim authorities, who were charged with the protection of these rights. This demonstrated not only respect for their religions, but a part reverence.

VE:   What should be meant when we talk about the need to respect other religions? Does it mean respecting these religions (their beliefs, practices etc), or respecting the right of their adherents to follow them or the respecting their adherents as fellow creatures of God?

YJ: As we have already discussed, the fact that the boundaries defining the ‘People of the Book’ (‘Fellow People of a Revealed Scripture’) were flexible and not fixed and expanded to include various religions was illustrative of Islam's pluralist approach. All revealed religions are placed within a category of honor, which thereby comes to embrace the greater whole of humanity, given that arguably no human community has been deprived of revelation of some sort. The following verses from the Qur'an illustrate and provide pointers to the respect accorded to this inner unity:

For every community there is a Messenger. [Qur'an 10:47]

For each of you [communities] We have established a Law and a Way. And had God willed, He could have made you one community. But in order that He might try you by that which He has given you [He has made you as you are]. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return, and He will inform you of that about which you differed. [Qur'an 5:48]

Truly We inspire you, as We inspired Noah, and the prophets after him, as We inspired Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed unto David the Psalms; and Messengers We have mentioned to you before, and Messengers We have not mentioned to you. [Qur'an 4:163–164]

VE: What, in your view, should be the basis of dialogue—the basic common consensus that brings people of different faiths together to dialogue in the first place?

YJ: As mentioned before, the basis of dialogue in Islam is to come to know and better worship God. It is to come to realize from one's lived experience that:

Everything is perishing except His Manifest Face (or Essence) [Qur'an 28:88].

If one begins to see the above in every aspect of creation, then the purpose of such dialogue is to realize from our experience that we are already “not”, in a certain sense, and that it is only God's reality that is not subject to finality, cancellation, extinction, non-being, entailing that only He is absolutely Real. Hence such dialogue becomes about sincerely seeking The Real, i.e. God.

VE:  What  do you think should, according to Islam, be the purpose of dialogue: to improve social relations between people of different faiths, to promote peace and harmony in society as a whole to better understand each other’s religions, to establish friendly relations between Muslims and others so that one may more easily engage in Dawah? Do you think that the above-mentioned purposes can go together or are they mutually-contradictory?

YJ: If such "Dawah" is understood to be sincerely seeking and calling to God, then there is no contradiction. Within such a lived experience, there can be no contradiction, only a beholding of a constant theophany, from Him, to Him.

 VE:   Some people may argue that engaging in Dawah or mission, on the one hand, and establishing better relations between Muslims and other people, on the other, are mutually-contradictory. What is your opinion?

YJ: On the contrary, true "Dawah" cuts aside the existential limitations and the psychological pretensions of the ego and casts one into the Truth, wherein: nothing is an absolute but the Absolute. Such an approach to dialogue negates egocentricity as a source of pride, exclusivity, and fanaticism; and instead asserts the exclusive and inclusive reality of God alone.

 VE: In the ‘pre-modern’ period in India, there were scores of Muslim and Hindu spiritual seekers who entered into what, to use a modern term, ‘dialogue’ with each other—for instance, many Bhaktas and Sufis. They would interact with each other, establish close personal relations, learn from each other and sometimes visit and stay in each other’s Khanqahs etc. Some of them accepted spiritual preceptors from the other ‘community’. What do you feel about this sort of ‘dialogue’?

YJ: Yes, Sufis were leading embodiments in this type of Islamic dialogue. The key to their approach was that they saw no "other", rather what they saw was the Face of God being manifest in all. For to them He alone subsists, not only as the transcendent, Divine Essence, in relation to which all things are nothing; but also the immanent presence which pervades and encompasses all things, constituting in fact their true being. Hence the realized Sufis never see an "other" to start with; they only see Him, bearing witness to the Qu'anic verse:

And unto God belong the East and the West; and wherever you turn, there is the Face of God [Qur'an 2:115].

VE: In India, there are thousands of Sufi shrines which non-Muslims continue to visit in large numbers. Do you consider this as a meaningful form of dialogue?

If such visitations are coupled with the desire to understand what the Sufis masters were actually calling to and not for superficial historical interest – then they indeed can be useful for deepening the dialogue of the spirit. The upshot is that Sufi masters were pointing to us the true nature of Being. In accordance with the Islamic spirit from which their experiences shone forth, we too can engender within ourselves the sincere desire for greater knowledge and understanding both of “the other” and of oneself in order to come to realize God. To summarize, Sufis saw the One who is manifesting Himself in the various forms of distinctive, differentiated creation, giving rise to perpetually renewed Theophanous of Himself to Himself through an apparent “other”, i.e. the “seeing of Himself as it were in a mirror”. Their call (Dawah) was thus to drown and annihilate their own selves in that "seeing" of Unicity. Such a call pulls at the very recesses of one's heart, pulling one out through love into a love that encompasses all. To the Sufis, to give truth to our religions, it could not possibly be any other way.

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/interview/yusuf-jha,-new-age-islam/on-da-wah-and-dialogue/d/109987

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