03 October 2006

The Beginnings of Interfaith Dialogue

The “war on terror” has surrounded both the Eastern and Western worlds with slippery slopes in which taking sides is increasingly meaningless. We see predominantly Muslim states invaded and manipulated into internal conflicts by the Western forces, many innocent lives and communities destroyed daily and reactionism bred. From the other side, we see acts of blatant terrorism, acute discrimination and provocative public statements directed both within and towards “western” targets.

Many have taken these conflicts as West vs. East or even Christianity vs. Islam and have fuelled the flames of religious bigotry and discord. Others have simultaneously raised their voices for increasing interfaith dialogue.

By advancing historically unsound and theologically inaccurate opinions in such a deliberate and belligerent way, and thus deviating from the noble legacy left by his predecessor, the Pope could not have been inviting the Muslim world to dialogue. His subsequent lip service to interfaith dialogue has provided even clearer evidence of his shoddy propositions.

Undoubtedly, the situation calls for real interfaith dialogue. However, it will only initiate when believers from both camps make sincere efforts to understand the other’s faith, and when they make a humble appraisal of their own faith’s historical exploits. The first step to all of this is properly understanding Muhammad and His teachings, for this is the sticky point that people keep coming back to.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’d like to contribute in a small way to this point. For this I shall quote fragments of a speech delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
(full text can be found here) as He speaks of Muhammad:

“Americans and Europeans have heard a number of stories about the Prophet which they have thought to be true, although the narrators were either ignorant or antagonistic: most of them were clergy; others were ignorant Muslims who repeated unfounded traditions about Muhammad which they ignorantly believed to be to His praise.

Thus some benighted Muslims made His polygamy the pivot of their praises and held it to be a wonder, regarding it as a miracle; and European historians, for the most part, rely on the tales of these ignorant people.

For example, a foolish man said to a clergyman that the true proof of greatness is bravery and the shedding of blood, and that in one day on the field of battle a follower of Muhammad had cut off the heads of one hundred men! This misled the clergyman to infer that killing is considered the way to prove one's faith to Muhammad, while this is merely imaginary. The military expeditions of Muhammad, on the contrary, were always defensive actions: a proof of this is that during thirteen years, in Mecca, He and His followers endured the most violent persecutions. At this period they were the target for the arrows of hatred: some of His companions were killed and their property confiscated; others fled to foreign lands. Muhammad Himself, after the most extreme persecutions by the Qurayshites, who finally resolved to kill Him, fled to Medina in the middle of the night. Yet even then His enemies did not cease their persecutions, but pursued Him to Medina, and His disciples even to Abyssinia.

Muhammad received the Divine Revelation among these tribes, and after enduring thirteen years of persecution from them, He fled. [1] But this people did not cease to oppress; they united to exterminate Him and all His followers. It was under such circumstances that Muhammad was forced to take up arms. This is the truth: we are not bigoted and do not wish to defend Him, but we are just, and we say what is just. Look at it with justice. If Christ Himself had been placed in such circumstances among such tyrannical and barbarous tribes, and if for thirteen years He with His disciples had endured all these trials with patience, culminating in flight from His native land -- if in spite of this these lawless tribes continued to pursue Him, to slaughter the men, to pillage their property, and to capture their women and children -- what would have been Christ's conduct with regard to them? If this oppression had fallen only upon Himself, He would have forgiven them, and such an act of forgiveness would have been most praiseworthy; but if He had seen that these cruel and bloodthirsty murderers wished to kill, to pillage and to injure all these oppressed ones, and to take captive the women and children, it is certain that He would have protected them and would have resisted the tyrants. What objection, then, can be taken to Muhammad's action? Is it this, that He did not, with His followers, and their women and children, submit to these savage tribes? To free these tribes from their bloodthirstiness was the greatest kindness, and to coerce and restrain them was a true mercy. They were like a man holding in his hand a cup of poison, which, when about to drink, a friend breaks and thus saves him. If Christ had been placed in similar circumstances, it is certain that with a conquering power He would have delivered the men, women and children from the claws of these bloodthirsty wolves.
[1 To Medina.]

Briefly, Muhammad appeared in the desert of Hijaz in the Arabian Peninsula, which was a desolate, sterile wilderness, sandy and uninhabited. Some parts, like Mecca and Medina, are extremely hot; the people are nomads with the manners and customs of the dwellers in the desert, and are entirely destitute of education and science. Muhammad Himself was illiterate, and the Qur’án was originally written upon the blade bones of sheep, or on palm leaves. These details indicate the condition of the people to whom Muhammad was sent. The first question which He put to them was, "Why do you not accept the Pentateuch and the Gospel, and why do you not believe in Christ and in Moses?" This saying presented difficulties to them, and they argued, "Our forefathers did not believe in the Pentateuch and the Gospel; tell us, why was this?" He answered, "They were misled; you ought to reject those who do not believe in the Pentateuch and the Gospel, even though they are your fathers and your ancestors."

Muhammad never fought against the Christians; on the contrary, He treated them kindly and gave them perfect freedom. A community of Christian people lived at Najran and was under His care and protection. Muhammad said, "If anyone infringes their rights, I Myself will be his enemy, and in the presence of God I will bring a charge against him." In the edicts which He promulgated it is clearly stated that the lives, properties and honor of the Christians and Jews are under the protection of God; and that if a Muhammadan married a Christian woman, the husband must not prevent her from going to church, nor oblige her to veil herself; and that if she died, he must place her remains in the care of the Christian clergy. Should the Christians desire to build a church, Islam ought to help them. In case of war between Islam and her enemies, the Christians should be exempted from the obligation of fighting, unless they desired of their own free will to do so in defence of Islam, because they were under its protection. But as a compensation for this immunity, they should pay yearly a small sum of money. In short, there are seven detailed edicts on these subjects, some copies of which are still extant at Jerusalem. This is an established fact and is not dependent on my affirmation. The edict of the second Caliph [1] still exists in the custody of the orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, and of this there is no doubt. [2]
[1 Of Umar.]
[2 Cf. Jurji Zaydan's Umayyads and Abbasids, trans. D. S. Margoliouth.]

Nevertheless, after a certain time, and through the transgression of both the Muhammadans and the Christians, hatred and enmity arose between them. Beyond this fact, all the narrations of the Muslims, Christians and others are simply fabrications, which have their origin in fanaticism, or ignorance, or emanate from intense hostility.

In such a country, and amidst such barbarous tribes, an illiterate Man produced a book in which, in a perfect and eloquent style, He explained the divine attributes and perfections, the prophethood of the Messengers of God, the divine laws, and some scientific facts.

In short, many Oriental peoples have been reared for thirteen centuries under the shadow of the religion of Muhammad. During the Middle Ages, while Europe was in the lowest depths of barbarism, the Arab peoples were superior to the other nations of the earth in learning, in the arts, mathematics, civilization, government and other sciences. The Enlightener and Educator of these Arab tribes, and the Founder of the civilization and perfections of humanity among these different races, was an illiterate Man, Muhammad. Was this illustrious Man a thorough Educator or not? A just judgment is necessary.”

Although this small essay responds to many questions, it surely provides fuel for new ones. I would love to receive any of them so as to open a dialogue and talk about the logical consequences of the assertions presented here.

1 comment:

eteraz said...

this was an excellent post.

you should stop by my reformist islam blog where we have need for voices like yours.

if you want to exchange blogroll links, leave me a msg here

http://eteraz.wordpress.com/about/

i get about 2000 readers a day but ill certainly remember u