An excerpt from “Islam and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A Muslim Perspective” by Irfan A. Omar, Marquette University
Islam as a religion arose within the milieu where, among the Arabs, there were Christian and Jewish communities who professed monotheism not practiced by other tribes. People who eventually became Muslims were always aware of many of the figures that were part of Jewish and Christian heritage such as Abraham and Hagar. After the rise of Islam these figures became integral to the belief system of the new religion even though they were now seen through a slightly different interpretative lens. This was seen as a natural development because Islam’s view of itself was that it is a continuation of these earlier religions. Historically speaking, Islam, while recognizing these religions, sought to engage with their adherents and even referred to them as part of the family of religions (ahl-i-kitāb
). This is the context in which one must locate Islam’s position on interreligious dialogue. In this sense, Islam has been dialogical from its very inception. But this is the ideal side of the history of Islam. In the political realm, Islam has also been used as a tool for confrontation with, and conquest of, others. This “other” has been often conveniently labeled as a “religious” and/or a “cultural” other. Though the Qur’an speaks of differences as real, it condemns the use of the notion of “difference” as a pretext to demonize or subjugate others. The Qur’an sees differences and diversity of peoples, cultures, languages and even religions as a strength (indeed, a “mercy” from God) rather than as a problem.
Today Muslims along with leaders, practitioners, and activists from many other traditions, continue to strive to engage in dialogue and discussion for the sake of creating and maintaining peace. The increase in religious violence has compelled many to seek common wisdom and engage in a joint struggle against hateful narratives which are on the rise. No religion has been immune to having groups which have committed ghastly acts against others. In some cases, these “other-ized” victims belong to a different religious tradition but in other cases, they may be individuals and groups belonging to a sect within the same religion. Therefore, all believers must take responsibility to address the culture of hate that seeks to capitalize on by creating an “other” on the basis of “difference” often resulting in violence in the name of religion. In a globalized world any injury that afflicts one human being or community or any other living being, affects all of us, and in many more ways than previously imagined.
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Image: Niccolò Monti of Pistoia, St. Francis before the Caliph, Church of St. Francis, Cortona