Extreme voices in the three religions that claim the monotheist heritage of Prophet Abraham--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are busy sowing the seeds of confrontation and hate. They have recently taken the advantage of the politically rooted tensions between western and Middle Eastern countries to develop misunderstanding and mistrust among the followers of these religions.
Quoting selectively from Islamic sources, they have painted Islam as an intolerant religion that urges its followers to hate people of other faiths. This depiction belies both the historical record of Muslims dealing with the followers of other faiths, and, most importantly, the Qur'anic message itself. Although historical Muslim societies were imperfect, there are plenty of examples to show that Islamic values inspired Muslims to develop multi-religious societies in which people of diverse religious backgrounds lived in considerable harmony. The tolerance of Medieval Muslim Spain and the invitation extended to Jews expelled from Jerusalem to return to the city upon the defeat of the Crusaders are two shining examples.
The Qur'an reiterates a fundamental truth taught by all the prophets who were sent by God to guide human endeavors. It asserts that true and honest living is the assured way for spiritual and social harmony, and for protecting the long term self interests of every human being.
The Qur'an further asserts that humans are fallible and can never be free of error in understanding and judgment. Human knowledge is imperfect, and subject to bias and error. Knowledge of intentions and inner thoughts are beyond human capacity, and so is the knowledge of the final destiny of individuals. People of faith must show humility and put their trust in divine wisdom and the absolute justice of God, and must focus on doing what is right and just, instead of sitting in judgment on the eternal salvation of others. The Qur'an is clear that only God knows who is true and sincere in worship and service, and who has gone astray.
"Your lord knows best who strays from his way: He knows best who they are that receive His guidance." (6:117)
"And we granted them clear signs in matters (of religion): it was only after knowledge had been granted to them that they fell into schisms, through insolent envy among themselves. Verily your lord will judge between them on the Day of Judgment as to those matters in which they set up differences." (45:17)
The duty of the faithful is, therefore, not to judge others and look down on those who have different understanding and faith, but respect their choices and try his or her best to live an upright life and manifest the values of his and her faith through good work and good deeds.
"To you we sent the scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that has come to you. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, he would have made you a single People, but (his plan is) to test you in what he hath given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is he that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute." (5:48)
The Qur'an came to confirm the truth revealed in early scriptures, and the people of the book, the followers of the revealed scriptures, have a special place in the Qur'an, particularly those who carry the Abrahamic legacy. Significant portions of the Quran focus on the story of the Biblical prophets and their followers, the Jews and Christians. It presents their stories as the story of the journey of faith, reminding the followers of the last revelation of the ups and downs in the struggle of the early communities of faith.
Some commentators have stressed the down side of that story by focusing on the Qur'anic critique of the People of the Book. The Qur'an has pointed out several excesses and mistakes committed by the followers of the Biblical prophets, and warned the followers of Prophet Muhammad against committing similar excesses.
Yet the Qur'an is also full of stories of great struggles and shining examples of the followers of early prophets whose commitment and devotion were crucial for establishing the monolithic traditions and translating divine guidance into social practices: The strong faith of Saul (Talout) and those who stood firmly with him (2:249); the devotion of the people of the Trench who remained true to their faith in the face of a horrifying aggression committed by ruthless enemies (85:1-11); and the unwavering commitment of the followers of Christ to the ethical code and compassionate spirit he brought to humanity (61:14). Prophet Muhammad repeatedly emphasized that his mission confirmed those of early prophets. He directed early Muslims to seek refuge in Abyssinia, pointing out that the country was ruled by a just Christian King. This was the beginning of an excellent relationship and strong alliance between Muslims and Christians in Abyssinia that lasted for a thousand years.
Therefore, Muslim attitude toward the followers of other religions, particularly the People of the Book, should not be one of self-righteousness and pride, but one of compassion, mutual respect, and concern for the wellbeing and welfare of other communities. The Quran an encourages Muslims to cooperate for the common good and to search from a common ground, based on mutual respect and help.
"Say: O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah." If then they turn back, say: "Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's Will)." (3:94)
The common ground Muslims are asked to seek with the followers of other religions is a society in which people are free to worship God. In such open society Muslims must display positive attitude and unwavering respect of the followers of other faiths. Dealing with respect and positive engagement does not mean that differences in doctrine and interpretation do not matter. Rather, it means that those differences must be addressed through free and open dialogue.
It is this open, free, and dignified dialogue that allows the followers of various religious traditions to affirm their diversity and discuss their similarities and differences, and it is what Islam requires from its followers. Muslims have a moral and religious obligation to engage in interfaith dialogue with other communities of faith, and they must do that by maintaining ethical standards required by the Qur'an, including the directive to "argue with [the follower of the revealed books] in ways that are best and most gracious."
LOUAY M. SAFI Executive Director of ISNA Leadership Development Center (ILDC), Plainfield, Indiana. He is fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and serves on the steering committee of the Muslim-Christian Initiative on the Nuclear Weapons Danger.
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