Issue 48, December 2006

The culture of dialogue in Islam: freedom of choice and the right to differ
Mohammad Al-Sammak

Dialogue, in principle, can only exist when there are two parties with differences of opinion. Dialogue is the way to explain the various points of views and to illustrate the facts upon which they are based.

The aim of dialogue is also to achieve openness toward the other, to understand his point of view, and to be willing to understand him, and to accept him as he is and as he likes to be. So dialogue is the venue through which we assimilate opposing facts and information of the interlocutors and the ability to reach common understanding.

In our Islamic culture, according to Abu Walid Al-Baji, one of the prominent scholars : “He who innovates and proves to be right deserves double rewards: one reward for his innovation, and the other reward for being right. He who innovates and commits an error deserves one reward for his innovation.” Thus, we deduce that effort, like any other human attribute, can either be wrong or right; that trying hard when doing any deed, or thinking of any human idea, may result in being wrong or right. Innovation is not sacred, or absolute, or permanent; it is human, limited and changeable.

Also, our Islamic culture holds that: “My opinion is right and could be wrong, and the other’s is wrong, yet it could be right.” We thus understand that nobody has the right to claim that he holds the absolute truth. Nobody has the right to condemn the others, merely for having different opinions. Truth is relative. The search for the truth, even in the others’ points of view, is a direct road that leads to knowledge. It is at the same time, the highest form of dialogue.

Religion is the word of God. God is the complete and absolute truth. What comes from God is the complete and absolute knowledge. God taught man and preferred him –her- over most of his creatures, even over the angels. In spite of this, human knowledge is partial, meaning that it is part of God's whole knowledge. The part cannot cope with the whole, and cannot include it.

When man–woman- tries with his –her- partial knowledge to interpret - or explain the scripture - the words of God - (The Torah - the Bible - the Koran with its complete knowledge) this interpretation - or explanation - is and should be subjected to the common rules of criticism like any other human text. Because human understanding is open to being right or wrong, and consequently, criticising this understanding and criticising the human behaviour based on it, is a sort of correcting what is thought to be wrong, and re-adjusting what is considered to be improper behaviour. Critique here is of great importance, because its intention is to readjust the interpretation of God's word's, towards what is hoped to be closer to the whole truth embodied in these words of God.

From here on, we deal with the human understanding of religion, and not with religion itself, i.e. we deal with the human touch on the religious scripture and not with the whole and complete truth of the words of God. Critique here, and self-criticism, opens the door to a process of continuous understanding, interpretation, and transcendence of what is human in order to bring it closer to God's original intentions and meaning therefore, religious scripture (the words of God)

  • is sacred and holy
  • is permanent
  • is absolute

But the interpretation of the scripture (as a human process) is like any other human thinking

  • is not sacred and not holy
  • is changeable
  • is relative

It is always possible to misunderstand the meaning of the scripture, and consequently it is always possible to behave religiously incorrectly. The first step towards correcting the misunderstanding, and the misbehaviour, is to revise and to reconsider the interpretation of the scripture, and this in itself requires a process of continuous critique and self-criticism to the interpretation. In Islam this is one of the missions of innovation, not reformation.

Through innovation, understanding the religious scripture is subjected to a process of evolution by which religion can, and should go, side by side, and hand in hand with the changing personal and social priorities and developments.

Early religious Muslim leaders practised openly religious self-criticism. Here I will refer to two cases : The first is the case of the first Kalifa (Ruler) Abo-Baker Siddik. He confesses that he committed three mistakes :

  • That he accepted to be nominated as Kalifa. "But I am not sure that this is what the prophet Mohammed really wanted". The prophet used to say to us " ask me before you miss me". We did not ask him.
  • I condemned a multi-murderer to be burnt to death. "God only punishes with fire".
  • I ordered a share from a family heritage to a grandson less than what he deserves. I should have corrected myself and ordered a share for him equal to that of the father.

Here we see that the Kalifa practised self-criticism in three topics :

  • in politics as a political leader
  • in justice as a judge
  • in interpreting a religious text, as a scholar

The second case is of the second Kalifa Omar Bin Kattab who was known for being just, and for his self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Omar was lecturing in a mosque about the negative social consequences of the high financial burdens of marriage. He said that a man should not pay more than a thousand Diram (the unit currency at that time) to the bride. A woman interfered from the floor saying: Mr. Kalifa (Mr. President), what you just said is your personal opinion. The Koran says something different. And she quoted a verse from the Koran that puts no limits to the donation given to the woman to be married. Here Omar said : "Excuse me, God : The lady is right, and Omar is wrong".

Religious critique was founded henceforth on two major principles. The first principle says :
My point of view is right, but it might be wrong. And the point of view of the other is wrong, but it might be right. This means :

  • That any point of view (any interpretation to the religious scripture) is open to be right or wrong.
  • Nobody has the right to acclaim that he possesses (or that he knows) the whole truth.
  • Nobody has the right to exclude a point of view different from his, as completely and absolutely false and wrong.
  • Searching for the truth requires a dialogue with the other, who has a different point of view. Either to convince him or to be convinced by him. If not, then there is no other way but to accept and to respect the other as he is, with his believes, and as he wants himself to be.

The second principle says :
He who interprets, if he is right, deserves two rewards from God. One reward for his interpretation, the other for being right. And he who interprets and turns to be wrong, he deserves one reward only, that of interpretation and he will not be punished for being wrong:

This means :

  • That interpretation is a must.
  • Encouraging interpretation by God's rewards and by not punishing even - with good intention - for being wrong.
  • Interpretation is open to be right or wrong. Discovering the truth requires criticism. One way to criticism is openness to the different points of view of the other i.e. to dialogue with the other, on the basis that the art of dialogue is to search for truth in the point of view of the other.

Also, in our Islamic culture, dialogue requires the primary recognition of the existence of a party which is different. It requires respecting the other party’s right to adopt a vision, an attitude or a different idea, respecting his right to defend that idea, vision or stance, and subsequently respecting his right in being responsible for what he believes in.

Because dialogue pre-supposes the existence of the other, it is necessary to define the other. The definition cannot be stated regardless of the “I”. Understanding the other and agreeing with him cannot be achieved without sharing the “I”; and consequently the more man –woman- transcends his –her- ego and selfishness, the more he –she- spares a wider place in him –her-self to the other. The other is a separate entity which, when combined with myself, forms the truth. We need to understand the other and we need to reach an agreement with him.

Truth is not in one’s self alone. Truth is also a part of the other. The combination of both individuals forms the truth in its relativity. While God is the ultimate truth.

Hence, dialogue with the other is in itself an exploration to the “I”, and a process of shedding light on the errors that no human personality is free from.

Thus, Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, says, “The other is an intermediary between myself and my ego. He is the key to understanding myself, and experiencing my existence.”

The other may be an individual or a group. In both cases, he is either a Muslim believer, one of the Peoples of the Book, i.e. an adherent of a revealed religion, or an Atheist.

The Muslim believer is an integral part with all other believers, and they are like a compact structure in solidarity and co-operation. When the other is one of the People of the Book and lives in a Muslim community, he is in the custody of Muslims and protected by them. His religious codes and ethics are respected and implemented as well. The Prophet Mohammad says, “He who harms an adherent of a revealed religion, does harm to me.”

As to the other who is an infidel, Islam’s relationship with him is built on the principle of “to you be your way, and to me mine.” (Koran, Kafirun 109, 6). In all cases, the relationship between the Muslim and the other party is summarized briefly in the Prophet speeches (Manual of Hadith of Muhammad): “The Muslim is he who does not harm to the others either by his hand or by his tongue.” (The Muslim is a person who does not harm others either mentally or physically.)

Islam considers the difference in opinion as a human and natural reality, and it treats it as such. (O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other.) (Koran-Hujurat 49, 13).

God created human beings different in ethnicity and cultures and languages; yet, they are in essence “one nation.” The Koran says: (Mankind was but one nation but differed (later)..) (Yunus 10, 19) The fact that man’s differences and controversies are innumerable does not negate human unity.

This unity is based on diversity, not similitude or conformities. For that reason, diversity is prodigy bestowed by God, and it is a manifestation of his glamour and perfection in creation. The Koran says, "and among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know." (Rum, 30, 22). The basic principle in Islam is defined by Prophet Mohammad as 'there is no merit for an Arab over a non-Arab, or for a white person over a black person except in devotion.' Accordingly, ethnic differences do not constitute the basis for either priority or inferiority. It is a difference in the totality of human nature. One should respect the other as he is and as a different creation of God.

Respect of the other’s ethnicity and culture is a basis for Islamic religious behavior. Respect of the other’s religion and belief is respect of freedom of choice, and of the principle of non-coercion in religion. The Koran says, "To each is a goal to which God turns him." (al-Baqara 2, 148). God has different laws and approaches for different cultures and races, as is confirmed by the Koran. "To each among you have we prescribed a law and an Open Way. If God 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 God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute." (Al-Maida 5, 48). And "..But God will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment" (Baqara 2, 113). And "If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute except those on whom thy Lord hath bestowed His Mercy." (Hud, 118, 119).

The Koran laid down clear rules for recognizing the other and his point of view so as to elucidate the truth, specifically including the divine truth.

Dialogue requires the presence of contra-dictions and diversities in place, thought and diligence of vision. All this reflects the nature of normal diversity, which, in itself, is a sign of the divine power of the creation and a manifestation of divine sublimity.

The unity of race, color or language is not a necessity for understanding. We need to base our arguments on the assumption of the presence of the diversities that God created, and wanted to be, and thus create relations based on love and respect with the others. Science is discovering that diversity exists even in our hereditary genes that dictate our unique personalities. Dialogue has rules and culture. This is manifested eloquently in Sura Saba of the Koran. The Prophet Muhammad was conversing with the infidels, expounding, illustrating and teaching. The infidels constantly insisted that the truth was on their side.

The Prophet concluded the dialogue according to the following spiritual vision: (…and certain it is that either we or ye are rightly guided or in manifest error!” (Saba 34, 24) The Prophet deposited himself as an equal party in the debate, and left judgment to God.

This deed of the Prophet symbolizes the highest expression of the respect for the freedom of others to choose, and respect for their choice even if they were wrong. The Prophet went even further as the following verse of the Koran said: “Ye shall not be questioned as to our sins, nor shall we be questioned as to what ye do.” (Saba, 34, 25).

The Prophet went so far in the ethics of dialogue, that He described his choice as a “sin” and the others choice as a mere “action”, and then kept it to God’s judgement.

God’s judgement, as always, is Right and Just. Man is in a constant state of change and God is the sole entity Who checks him and judges his thoughts and actions. (Say: “Our Lord will gather us together and will in the end decide the matter between us (and you) in truth and justice: And He is the One to decide.” (Saba 24). Respect of freedom of choice is not a veneration of error, nor is it a means to negate other’s point of view, and dialogue among people can be fruitful even when it does not reach a conclusion that the point of view of the other is wrong.

Dialogue, like friendship, is neither born by pressure nor by an act of desire. We should, as was stated in the document of the second council of the Vatican, concerning the dialogue with Islam, “gradually attempt to change the notions of our Christian fraternity, because it is important to us, as well as to the others, to discover how man exists and what he hopes to become. We are not interested in the past. We are more interested in man heading towards the future, to acquire more justice, more truth and greater love. This is the man we should know, and with whom we need to engage and build a real and truthful dialogue.” The Orientalist Massignon, as was referred to by the Vatican document, states that “so as to understand the other, we need neither to capture nor to assimilate him in us, but rather we need to be a host to him.”

Dialogue has many objectives. It can either be a means to prevent a crisis, or an effort to preempt the causes of a crisis. It can also be an effort to solve an existing crisis or to contain its effects. The objective of the dialogue is to work:

  • To bring out common elements in doctrine, ethics and culture;
  • To deepen mutual interests in the fields of development, economics, and ventures;
  • To expand cooperation in social activities (i.e. athletic clubs, scouts, educational and organizational societies);
  • To emphasize the veracity of the value of moderation, and expand its educational bases;
  • To enrich the culture of dialogue that is based on acceptance of the other, openness to the other’s points of view, and refusal to retrench behind intellectual rustic views that are considered as fixed, sacred and not apt to reconsideration.

Dialogue, in principle, is based on two fundamental notions. The first is to understand what we are arguing about, and the second is to understand why we are dialoguing. In other words, we need to specify the bases of the dialogue and its origins. Argumentation evolves from logical and scientific hypotheses that are based on the words “and argue with them in ways that are most gracious…(and) with wisdom and beautiful preaching.” (Koran) (God addressed Moses by saying: (Go, thou and thy brother, with My signs, and slacken not, either of you, in keeping Me in remembrance. “Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds. Tell him soft saying for he may awaken or frighten”(Taha 42, 43, 44) and (Who is better in speech than one who calls (men) to God, works righteousness, and says, “I am of those who bow in Islam”? Nor can Goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: then will he between whom and thee there was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!) Fussilat “or Sajda” 41/ verses 33 and 34).

God confirms the aforementioned process and forbids the believers to follow those who are impudent or to imitate them in degrading others’ doctrine: (Revile not ye those whom they call upon beside God, lest they out of spite revile God in their ignorance.) (An’am 6, 108).

To start a dialogue the different parties need to possess freedom of thought and self-confidence. (Abdur-Rahman Hilli, Freedom of belief in the Koran, Center of Arab Culture- Morocco- 2001, pp 94-96). Thus God commanded the prophet to achieve and provide for the interlocutors, (Say: “I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me...) (Kahf 18, 110) (Say: “I have no power over any good or harm to myself except as God willeth. If I had knowledge of the unseen, I should have multiplied all good, and no evil should have touched me: I am but a warner, and a bringer of glad tidings to those who have faith.”) (A’raf 7, 188).

For a dialogue to succeed, it has to occur in a peaceful setting so as to allow thought to distance itself from the emotion that prevents man from attaining self-awareness and cognition. He may, therefore, succumb to the pressure of others and give up, thus losing voluntarily his independent ideology: (Say: “I do admonish you on one point: that ye do stand up before God, - (It may be) in pairs, or (it may be) singly, - and reflect (within yourselves): your companion is not possessed: he is no less than a warner to you, in face of a terrible penalty.) (Saba 34, 46) The Koran considered that the foes of the prophet were influenced by an antagonistic and emotional atmosphere when they accused him of madness. It calls upon them to disengage themselves from such an atmosphere and to think in a calm and private setting. (Previous reference – A.L. Hilli).

The Koranic method of dialogue guides the process to end in a mission and a message that will embody the conscience even if it does not respond clearly in the mind. It is a process that does no harm to the opponent. It guarantees his freedom and his independence, and it leads to a position of responsibility, so that all participants can move on within the various domains. (Fadl allah, Muhammad Hussain, Al-Hewar, Dimensions, Inspirations and Indications-: Muntalaq Magazine, No. 16-105- Rabi Aw’al 1414 H.)

The culture of dialogue in Islam has morals, values, and an ethical program that respects the individual and his freedom of choice. It also respects his right to differ and to argue.

In conclusion: (Those who receive guidance, do so for the good; those who do not lose). They have the freedom to choose; and they have to be responsible for their choice, on the day of Judgement. God and God alone will judge then, who was right and who was wrong.

Mr Muhammad Al-Sammak from Beirut, Lebanon, is Secretary General of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, and the Islamic Permanent Committee, and a member of the World Council (Governing Board) of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

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Understanding Buddhism

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