On Interfaith Dialogue
Sikand: What, in your view, should be the basis of interfaith dialogue — the basic common consensus that brings people of different faiths together to dialogue in the first place?
Schwartz: Interfaith dialogue should be founded, in my opinion, on a commitment among varying religious believers to social responsibility, and, above all, unity of citizenship in countries and across the globe. Interfaith dialogue should seek ways to reinforce the sense of universal humanity between believers in the different religions. Prophet Muhammad sallallahualeyhisalaam is said to have instructed the Muslim refugees who fled to Christian-ruled Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the face of their oppression in Makkah to accept the laws and customs of the land to which they migrated, although remaining Muslims. This is supported by a hadith narrated by Ibn Umar and recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari (Volume 4, Book 52, Number 203): 'The Prophet said, "It is obligatory for one to listen to and obey (the ruler's orders) unless these orders involve disobedience (to Allah); but if an act of disobedience (to Allah) is imposed, he should not listen to or obey it"'.
Most moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative Muslim scholars agree that this applies to Muslims outside Muslim lands, who must obey the political authorities in the countries where they emigrate. It was the universal practice among Muslim immigrants to the West, and their descendants, before the rise of radical Islam at the end of the 1970s.
Obedience to law should include recognition of a national identity that surpasses, but does not replace, religious duties. That is the American conception: one set of public legal standards, many religious and cultural legacies.
Sikand: What do you feel should be the purpose(s) of interfaith dialogue: Mutual understanding? Communicating one's religion to others? Learning about other religions? Benefiting spiritually from the goodness that we can discover in other faiths and their adherents? Promoting peace? Or what?
Schwartz: As I stated above, I believe interfaith dialogue should reinforce a national and universal conception of citizenship, which should mean 'promoting peace'. Mutual respect should be the primary aim of interfaith dialogue. I do not hope for an illusory 'mutual understanding'. Muslims (and Jews) will never 'understand' the claim of Christians that Jesus was God's son, and Christians will never 'understand' the Jewish and Muslim rejection of this belief. But Christians are an indispensable element in all interfaith dialogue.
One can and should learn about other religions in an accurate and objective manner. I am not convinced that believers in any of the major religions have much to gain from 'the goodness that we can discover in other faiths and their adherents' in terms of interfaith dialogue. Such goodness is typically a product of individual character and local history and should not be identified with an 'other religion' in general, except where differing religions share a heritage, as do Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Muslims will understand interfaith dialogue as a form of da'wa or 'invitation to Islam', but, especially in a world where, today, Islam is badly misunderstood by many non-Muslims, da'wa should mean calm, clear exposition. Da'wa can mean, simply, 'explanation'. I have found that numerous Muslims consider da'wa as a 'call' to proper Muslim behavior within the Islamic community to be more significant than da'wa as proselytism of non-Muslims. Eagerness for da'wa to non-Muslims is a radical trait, in my view. I believe the continued existence of the other religions is included in Allah's divine plan, and that many Muslims think other believers should remain faithful to their original religions.
Sikand: What does Islam say about interfaith dialogue? Can you please elaborate with the help of references to Qur'an and hadith?
Schwartz: Qur'an (29:46) says: 'Be courteous when you argue with the People of the Book... Say, "What was revealed to us is what was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one"'. Further, I conceive the Islamic recognition of Jews and Christians as 'People of the Book' [Ahl-e Kitab] and the Islamic mandate to protect them – and others – as inculcating a principle of mutual religious respect. Whether this is the same as 'interfaith dialogue' depends on individual interpretation.
Sikand: Qur'an (49:13) says: 'O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted'.
Do you see this verse as also being related to interfaith dialogue? Do you think that the different religious communities also come under 'peoples and tribes' referred to here?
Schwartz: I believe the Quranic citation refers to discourse between believers in different religions as well as members of different ethnicities and that it affirms the legitimate standing of the disparate faiths other than Islam. One need not indulge in a convoluted vision of dialogue to imagine members of different religions, living side by side, getting to know one another. Dialogue for the sake of social stability should suffice. Peace between religious communities that remain culturally separated from one another, such as the pietistic Amish and Mennonites in America, and from 'the rest of society', is possible without close relations. Similarly, civility exists in America between the majority and ethnic communities that are culturally separate from 'the rest'.
In my view, mutual respect between believers must be based on recognition of distinctions, not a confusion of them. Religions are influenced by one another, and may borrow aspects – mainly in cultural matters – but not so much as to change their basic teachings. Muhammad Iqbal observed in his 1908 University of Munich doctoral thesis, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia, that Basra in Iraq, whence Sufism emerged in the second Islamic century, was then 'the playground of various forces – Greek philosophy, skepticism, Buddhist ideas, Manichaeism'. Yet, Sufism did not incorporate these belief systems – Sufi mysticism remains Islamic.
There are Muslim scholars in communities from France to Indonesia who recognize the value of good interfaith relations, although they may not desire to discuss the question of Jesus with Christians.
Sikand: Some people claim that many Muslims are inimical to dialogue because they are characterized by a sort of supremacism that leads them to think they have nothing to learn from others.
What do you have to say?
Schwartz: This view is not, in my view, accurate. Moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative Muslims in most communities are open to discourse with representatives of other religions. Believers in all religions project their faith as the sole, uncorrupted revelation. If anything, Christians are much more aggressive about this than Muslims, since many Christians preach that without being saved by acceptance of Jesus, a person is destined to hellfire. Muslims do not believe this; rather, as Qur'an (2:62) affirms, 'Surely, those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians and the Sabians, whoever have faith with true hearts in Allah and in the Last-day and do good deeds, their reward is with their Lord, and there shall be no fear for them nor any grief'.
If Muslims are to fulfill the Quranic commandment to 'know one another' among the differing peoples and tribes, such would be impossible without a clear knowledge of the other religions. There is considerable illuminating literature in the classic Islamic canon examining the views of the other religions. For example, the famous 10th c. CE Persian-speaking author from Central Asia, Al-Biruni, wrote an outstanding, encyclopedic account of India and its religious cultures. His work is considered objective and accurate.
Sikand: Some people may claim that since Islam is a missionary religion, and since Muslims are commanded to engage in da'wa, they may see dialogue just as a means to reach out to communicate Islam to others.
What is your response?
Schwartz: Adherents of all religions engage in discourse with other believers to clarify and expound the principles to which they hold. There is no reason Muslims should be expected to be different about this. A distinction between 'dialogue' and 'da'wa' is, in my view, meaningless.
Sikand: Some religious pluralists engaged in interfaith dialogue stress that one purpose of interfaith dialogue is to listen to, learn from and be enriched by insights of other religions. In other words, dialogue is not just about telling others about one's own religion (perhaps in the hope that they might accept it), but also to learn from and imbibe spiritual truths, values, perspectives and practices from other faiths which may not be present in one's own faith or which may not be so clearly stressed in one's faith as it is in another one.
Do you see Islam as endorsing this approach to dialogue?
Schwartz: I think this is a skewed conception of dialogue. Once again, I do not see any difference between da'wa as 'explanation', and dialogue. The proposal that 'dialogue' means 'learning from others' is presumptuous and will naturally alienate many believers in all religions. Nevertheless, as the Sunnah tells us, Prophet Muhammad learned from the Jews of Madinah, in the matter of fasting (hadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 6, Chapter 19, Numbers 2499-ff). Bernard Lewis and others have pointed out the influence of Islamic methods of argument on the later development of Judaism. Christians learned a great deal from Muslims during the Spanish reconquest and the Crusades – neither of which were predicated on dialogue. We should learn from one another even in times of conflict.
While I understand that the tradition of Sufism in India is syncretic and that Hindus participate in Sufi devotions, I would consider this a specific and unique case. To emphasize, mutual respect between the faiths must be based, I believe, in recognition of differences, not in an artificial attempt to abolish them.
Sikand: Some people may say that while Islam can tolerate other People of the Book [Ahl-e Kitab], 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?
Schwartz: I believe that Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists are considered People of the Book [Ahl-e Kitab] by the consensus of Muslim scholars today, and were defined so from relatively early in Islamic history, although in the Hindu case the topic has been debated. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has reached out to the believers in the Chinese religions of Daoism and Confucianism. If Islam had no tolerance for Hindus, offering them only death as an alternative to conversion, it would be impossible to explain how the ancestors of a billion Hindus survived for so long under Muslim rule. The claim that moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative Islam presents 'polytheists' with a choice of conversion to Islam or death is false.
Sikand: 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) if many of them think that other religions are false?
Schwartz: I do not think the majority of Muslims consider other religions 'false', although we do believe that Qur'an is a correct and complete transcription of a divine message that had become distorted in its earlier Abrahamic expressions. Jews and Christians equally differ on their Abrahamic antecedents. Human beings see political corruption in nearly all religious communities. But since Qur'an commands us, as noted above, to be courteous in our relations with the People of the Book, Islam has a long history of respecting other religions. One may cite as an example the rescue of the expelled Spanish and Portuguese Jews, at the end of the 15th century, by the Ottoman and Moroccan sultans. One should also note that while churches and synagogues were maintained in most Muslim countries through the centuries, mosques were converted to Christian use throughout the Christian lands.
I do not see why anything more than respect for other believers as human beings is necessary. The Abrahamic tradition teaches us to 'love our neighbor,' not to 'imitate our neighbor.' I believe there is a difference.
Sikand: What do you think 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?
Schwartz: I do not see why, in the modern world, anything beyond mutual civic respect is needed. That means both respecting the beliefs and practices of members of other religions and respecting the right of their adherents to follow them. I do not see a contrast here. In the Balkans, Muslims wish their Christian and Jewish neighbors well on their holidays. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, further, the traditional ulema have incorporated the Orthodox Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus in the Islamic calendar. But as Muslims we view Jesus as a Prophet and have the right to celebrate his birthday, as we do that of Muhammad and would that of Moses, if the latter were known. Respecting the beliefs and practices of other religions does not mean adopting or participating in them wholesale. The main religions are established in their observances, and that has facilitated their survival. Wide-scale change in the name of dialogue alone would not be productive. Certain aspects of all religions are open to debate, but such is better conducted within the ranks of the faithful, rather than through interfaith dialogue. Islam has adapted in the past to new conditions, and can adapt fruitfully in future without betraying its essential nature.
Sikand: Why is it that relatively few interfaith dialogues have been initiated by Muslims? Do you think Muslims are generally not interested in dialogue?
Schwartz: As I stated earlier, I do not think this is an accurate picture of Muslims today. Dialogue and common projects for social betterment have been initiated by Muslims in nearly every country in which they live. I do not think dialogue based on comparison of each other's faiths is useful. But many Muslim intellectuals have engaged in public communication and cooperation with Jews, Christians, Hindus, and others. In France, for example, the former mufti of Marseilles, Soheib Bencheikh, has initiated an important instance of such dialogue.
Sikand: If non-Muslims are looking for dialogue partners among Muslims, which sort of Muslims do you think they should approach? If many traditionalist ulema and the Islamists aren't really interested in genuine dialogue, and non-Muslims reach out to dialogue with the 'liberals'—people who are already convinced about the need for dialogue and harmony etc.— what's the use of this sort of dialogue? Won't it be just 'preaching to the already converted'?
Schwartz: I do not believe the traditional ulema are identical with 'Islamists' or that the former are uninterested in dialogue based on mutual respect. I cannot help but wonder what you mean by 'genuine dialogue'. If your intention is to support comparative discussions between members of different religions about their religions, I cannot see it contributing to harmony, but, rather to disharmony and increased violence. Muslims do not want to be preached at by non-Muslims about the basics of our religion – as opposed to condemnation of acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. That should be comprehensible to anybody. Dialogue with those who accept mutual respect is productive for social cohesion. That should also be easily understood.
I have no hostility to the traditional ulema, and I observe that too many 'modern'/'Western' educated Muslims, for various reasons, have turned to radical Islam. The traditional ulema have the authority to participate in social interchange with representatives of other faiths, and to argue in favor of respect for them.
Sikand: A lot of writings on other religions by Muslim writers on other faiths (even those that are styled as 'dialogues') tend to be very tendentious and do not empathetically understand these religions as their adherents actually understand them.
How does this tendency impact on prospects for Muslims engaging in sincere interfaith dialogue?
Schwartz: I cannot answer this question unless you cite some of the Muslim authors to which you refer. Radical Muslims express contempt for the other faiths. Traditional Muslims express respect for the other faiths. That is enough for me. Asking religious believers to 'empathetically understand these religions as their adherents actually understand them' is appropriate for academics and scholars. For the ordinary believer, it is, I think, an almost impossible task. That is why my organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, addresses ourselves to Muslims more than to non-Muslims. I would say personally that there is much about Islam, and especially Sufism, that cannot he conveyed to non-Muslims. Islam has always had aspects that are particular to it alone. It is our religion and we have a right to our religion, so long as we do not interfere with others. That is law in the modern world.
Sikand: In the name of dialogue, some Muslim groups seek to rebut and criticize other religions and point out the (real or imaginary) errors in their scriptures and belief systems. Some try to prove other religions as inferior and mock them.
Is this at all compatible with the spirit of dialogue? Can this be called dialogue at all or is it simply inter-religious polemics?
Schwartz: I think the kind of 'dialogue' in which religious principles are 'debated' will degenerate naturally into polemics, other disagreements, claims of superiority, and mockery. That is why I insist on mutual respect, based on recognition of differences. I do not believe in an imaginary resolution of religious differences.
Sikand: What impact do you see radical Islamism and violence in the name of Islam, on the one hand, and what is called 'Islamophobia', on the other, having on prospects for Muslims engaging in inter-religious dialogue?
Schwartz: Interfaith communication is a useful tactic against radical Islam and the best answer to hatred of Islam. But it should, once again, be based on recognition of differences, not on unrealistic visions of reconciliation.
Sikand: Do you see that as radical Islamists gain strength in many places, other Muslims who opposed to them are increasingly willing to stand up to speak for Islam, counter the Islamists and to engage in dialogue with people of other faiths?
Schwartz: Muslims are conformist. In many countries, they do not resist the extremists. In some, they do – India being a major example. I anticipate that the atrocities committed by fanatics such as those involved in the so-called 'Islamic State' in Syria and Iraq will drive many ordinary Muslims to oppose radicalism. But I do not consider 'dialogue with people of other faiths' an essential principle to defeating radical Islam. The triumph over radical Islam must be based on Islamic precedents, as it can be.
Sikand: What do you feel about the efficacy of dialogue at the theological/scriptural level, between so-called religious 'scholars' and 'experts'? Or do you think it is perhaps more fruitful to focus on dialogue at the social/political level, in terms of people from different faith backgrounds collaborating for common social and political purposes? Or, more than that, dialogue at the mystical level, beyond doctrines and dogmas, where the very notion of different faiths and communities completely dissolves?
Schwartz: I support historical and textual research on all religions by members – scholars and experts – of all faiths. But that is not the same as public dialogue between believers. I think I have made clear that I consider mutual respect between believers for common social goals to be the appropriate definition of 'interfaith dialogue.' I do not believe in a mystical dialogue that transcends the different faiths, or where the differences between faiths and communities dissolve.
Sikand: Can you please reflect on your experiences of interfaith dialogue—the various meetings and seminars, etc. that you might have attended. What do you feel about the efficacy of such encounters?
Schwartz: Most such meetings are dominated by political academics who often preach an imaginary conciliation between faiths, and many I have attended have been of little utility. I have found specialist academic meetings on historical issues in Islam more useful. I would point to the Balkan countries, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosova, and Albania, as places where non-academic interfaith meetings take a more positive form, because the citizens of those lands feel a common obligation to better their condition regardless of religious identification. There Muslim, Christian, and Jewish representatives meet regularly for the good of the whole nation.
Sikand: Some people think (as I do!) that if the purpose of dialogue is to promote understanding and harmony, then the best way to do it is not to 'conference about' it but, rather, to build close friendships with people of other faiths. In other words, true interfaith dialogue for harmony can only come about through true interfaith living and inter-personal dialogue and harmony.
Schwartz: Living side-by-side should promote harmony, but may not. I saw how members of different faiths were driven apart – even in married families – during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. Such harmony may be fragile and easily disrupted.
Sikand: How, if at all, has interacting with people of other faiths deepened your own spirituality and helped you understand your own faith in a better, more inclusive way?
Schwartz: I take inspiration from Jewish scholars, some of who have pursued their own form of mystical quest – Kabbalah – and others who have contributed to the scientific study of Islam. I also admire Catholic intellectuals who have taken a stand against political totalitarianism and have promoted pluralistic interfaith values. Both of these groups have been influenced by Islamic metaphysics. I have studied and praise Protestant theologians for their depth of mystical understanding. I am a Westerner and these are the traditions I know.
Sikand: From your particular Sufi perspective, how do you look at issues of interfaith relations, including dialogue?
Schwartz: Sufis play an important role in many countries in promoting interfaith respect, but Sufism is primarily an esoteric interpretation of Islam. Sufi ethics may contribute to mutual respect among believers. So we see Muhyid'din Ibn Arabi, Shaykh ul-Akbar – the greatest shaykh of the Sufis – writing:
"My heart is a pasture for gazelles and a convent of Christian monks,
A temple for idols and the Ka'bah of pilgrims,
The Tablets of the Law in Torah and the Book of Qur'an.
I follow the religion of Love, wherever Love takes me, There is my religion and my faith."
But the historical vessel of good interfaith relations in most Muslim lands has been the traditional ulema, not the Sufis.