by Leonard Swidler

Dialogue, as the term is used today to characterize encounters between persons and groups with different religions or ideologies, is something quite new under the sun. When different religions or ideologies met in the past, the main purpose was to overcome an opponent, because each was completely convinced that it alone knew the secret of human life.

In recent times sincerely convinced persons of different religions and ideologies have slowly come to the conviction that they did not hold such a secret entirely unto themselves, that in fact they had something very important to learn from each other. As a consequence they approached their encounters with other religions and ideologies not primarily in the teaching mode but the learning mode--seeking together to find more of the meaning of life. That is dialogue.

The impetus for dialogue in the contemporary world has generally come from Christians, and secondly from Jews. Thus it is natural that when Islam enters into dialogue, it is most likely to be first with Christians and then Jews. To be sure, the need for dialogue between Islam and Hinduism and even Buddhism is underlined almost daily in the newspaper reports of mutual hostility and killings. But it is overwhelmingly the encounter with the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, that has been the motor driving Islam toward dialogue.[1]

A special word of caution to Jews and Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims is in order. The vast majority of Muslims trained in Islamics are non-Westerners, which means they very likely come from a country that was until very recently a colony of the West. Many Muslims are still traumatized by Western colonialism and frequently identify Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism, with the West. Jewish and Christian dialogue partners need to be aware of this and move to defuse the problem.

Jews and Christians will need to make a special effort to learn more about Islam than what was required for them intelligently to engage in the Jewish Christian dialogue, for in the latter situation they usually knew at least a little about the partner's religion. With Islam they will probably be starting with a negative quantity compounded from sheer ignorance, massive misinformation, and images of Khomeni, who is no more representative of Islam than the Grand Inquisitor is of Christianity.

Most difficult of all is the fact that a huge cultural gap exists between the great majority of Muslims and precisely those Jews and Christians who are open to dialogue. In brief: Islam as a whole has not yet really experienced the Enlightenment and come to terms with it, unlike much, though not all, of the Judeo-Christian tradition. only a minority of Muslim Islamic scholars will share the "deabsolutized" understanding of truth that makes possible (and desirable) conversation with the religiously "other" in order to learn religiously from her or him. This means that many efforts at dialogue with Muslims will in fact be prolegomena to true interreligious dialogue. Frequently such attempts will be not unlike discussions with many orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, or pre--Vatican II Roman Catholics.

But the prolegomena must be traversed in order to reach authentic dialogue. The words of Pope Paul VI apply to all Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who "must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren . . . making the first approaches toward them . . . dialogue is demanded nowadays . . . by the pluralism of society, and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age."[2] It is toward that end all Christians, Jews and Muslims are urged to strive, first among themselves and then with each other in pairs and all together.

Although only a minority of Muslim Islamicists have a deabsolutized view of truth, there are many more of them than is usually recognized. often, however, they live outside the Muslim world. A personal experience may help exemplifying why.

An Egyptian Muslim Islamicist spent a number of years studying and teaching in America. At that time he made his own the historical-critical mentality and was very open to inter-religious dialogue. We spoke quite specifically about a "dialogic" article he wished to write for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Suddenly for family reasons he had to return to Egypt and shortly thereafter took a position teaching Islamics at a university in Saudi Arabia. After two years of correspondence and coaxing, he wrote me in despair that he could not write the article we had worked out together so long as he was in the Arabian world; the intellectual atmosphere was just too restrictive for him to be able to think the thoughts needed in order to write the article.[3]

The same point was made poignantly by Fazlur Rahman: "Free thought and thought are synonymous, and one cannot hope that thought will survive without freedom.... Islamic thought, like all thought, equally requires a freedom by dissent, confrontation of views, and debate between ideas."[4]Professor Rahman, who was for many years at the University of Chicago, knew the problem from experience. He was Minister of Education of Pakistan from 1947 to 1957, where he later (1962 to 1968) directed the newly -formed Islamic Research Institute (established by President Ayub Khan).

But even as the institute was a little less than halfway through to the initial stage of its goal, it became the victim of a massive attack of the combined forces of the religious right and the opposition politicians. I resigned in September 1968 and the Ayub Khan government fell six months later, and, although this group of progressive scholars has done its best to maintain itself, it has since been overwhelmed by the forces of reaction.[5]

Nevertheless, critical thinking among Muslim Islamicists has broken through.

In regard to research into the real occasions for the individual revelations of the Qur'an, and the consequent legal philosophy, not enough is done seriously to distinguish the time-bound elements from the enduring. The knowledge that the Qur'an is in part also a collection of time-related documents from the early history of Islam has not yet been able to move beyond pure theory. (Small Balic, Yugoslavia)[6]
For me it is clear that we cannot "go back" to the Qur'an. Rather, we must go forward with it. I want to understand the Qur'an as the Arabs of the time of the Prophet did only in order to interpret it anew, in order to apply it to my living conditions and to believe in it insofar as it speaks to me as a human person of the twentieth century. (Asaf Fyzee, India)[7]

Muhammad M. Arkoun, Professor of Arabic Language and Islamic Culture at the University of Paris--and, for a time, Temple University--has asked that modern critical scholarship be brought to bear on both religions and their dialogue: "I demand in what concerns me a critically new reading of the Scripture (Bible, Gospels, Qur'an) and a philosophical critique of exegetical and theological reason."[8] He recently argued this point even more forcefully and with great stress on the need to study religions together:

In this context where struggling ideologies are at work, it seems totally romantic, irrelevant, and useless to engage in debates between religions about traditional faiths, values, or dogmas. Positive and efficient initiatives should be taken in the field of education: primary and secondary schools, universities, the mass media, nongovernmental organizations and other private and public institutions, so as to promote a new teaching of history, comparative cultures, comparative religions, comparative philosophies and theologies, comparative literature and law.[9]

After spelling out in some detail how this comparative study should be carried out, Arkoun concluded:

This is, in very short allusive terms, my proposal as a Muslim scholar--not to contribute, I repeat, to an encounter that would mean that we think and work within the framework of I and we vs. you and them but to the creation of a new space of intelligibility and freedom. We need to be emancipated from inherited traditions not yet studied and interpreted with controlled methods and cognitive principles.
Muslims are currently accused of being closed-minded, integrists, fundamentalists, prisoners of dogmatic beliefs. Here is a liberal, modern, humanist, Muslim proposal. I await the response of Jews, Christians, and secularists to my invitation to engage our thoughts, our endeavors, and our history in the cause of peace, progress, emancipation, justice through knowledge, and shared spiritual values.[10]

Perhaps the most thoroughgoing exponent of the necessity of the historical-critical method for ascertaining the correct meaning of the foundation of Islam, the Qur'an, was Fazlur Rahman, who argued that the text can be understood only in context.

The Qur'an is the divine response, through the Prophet's mind, to the moral-social situation of the Prophet's Arabia.... It is literally God's response through Muhammad's mind (this latter factor has been radically underplayed by the Islamic orthodoxy) to a historic situation (a factor likewise drastically restricted by the Islamic orthodoxy).[11]

Like Asaf Fyzee, Rahman wished to get to the original meaning of the Qur'an so it could be applied today:

There has to be a two-fold movement: First one must move from the concrete case treatments of the Qur'an--taking the necessary and relevant social conditions of that time into account--to the general principles upon which the entire teaching converges. Second, from this general level there must be a movement back to specific legislation, taking into account the necessary and relevant social conditions now obtaining.[12]

This is very much like the "two-pole" theology of contemporary Christian theologians like Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. From this there follows another logical step--namely, that "the tradition will therefore be more an object of judgment of the new understanding [of the Scripture] than an aid to it."[13]

Moreover, Rahman rejected the notion that, "any significant interpretation of the Qur'an can be absolutely monolithic.... the Prophet's companions themselves sometimes understood certain Qur'anic verses differently, and this was within his knowledge."[14] Further, "It is obviously not necessary that a certain interpretation once accepted must continue to be accepted; there is always both room and necessity for new interpretation, for this is, in truth, an ongoing process."[15]

Precisely this last point was raised to the level of a methodological principle in dealing with the Qur'an by Ustaz Mahmud Muhammad Taha from the Sudan. (See "An Alternative to Islamism," by Khalid Duran, pages 453-467.--Editors.) Taha argued that the shift from the earlier revelation of principles in Mecca to the later one in Medina is essentially reversible. The Mecca principles are fundamentally open, liberal, and liberating, whereas the Medina principles are specific and restrictive. The shift was made because in the concrete circumstances--both external ones and the internal capabilities of Muslims at that time--the Mecca principles could not yet be implemented in all their openness. They were the ideal, Medina was but a way-station; now it is time for the Muslims to leave the Medina waystation and move forward toward fulfilling the liberating Mecca ideal. This is the heart of the teaching of Taha, filled out with Qur'anic citations and argumentation.[16]

Mohammed Talbi of the University of Tunisia at Tunis received the Lukas Prize for his contributions to interreligious dialogue from the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Tubingen in May 1985 (the funding for the Lukas Prize comes from the family of Rabbi Lukas, who had been a student at Tubingen). Talbi's reflections on religious freedom are those of a committed, self-critical Muslim:

In short, from the Muslim perspective that is mine, our duty is simply to bear witness in the most courteous way that is most respectful of the inner liberty of our neighbors and their sacredness. We must also be ready at the same time to listen to them in truthfulness. We have to remember, as Muslims, that a hadith of our Prophet states: "The believer is unceasingly in search of wisdom; wherever he finds it he grasps it." Another saying adds: "Look for knowledge everywhere, even as far as in China." And finally, it is up to God to judge, for we, as limited human beings, know only in part. Let me quote: "To each among you We prescribed a Law and an open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people. But His plan is to test you in what He hath given you." (Qur'an, V, 51)....
At the heart of this problem we meet the ticklish subject of apostasy. . . the Qur'an argues, warns and advises, but never resorts to the argument of the sword. That is because that argument is meaningless in the matter of faith. In our pluralistic world our modern theologians must take that into account.
We can never stress too much that religious liberty is not an act of charity or a tolerant concession towards misled persons. It is a fundamental right of everyone. To claim it for myself implies ipso facto that I am disposed to claim it for my neighbor too.[17]

Hasan Askari, formerly Chairperson of the Sociology Department of Muslim University of Aligarh, India, and recently a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Islam and of Christian-Muslim Relations, Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, U.K., has long espoused authentic interreligious dialogue, based on a deabsolutized understanding of truth:

One who does not allow for alternatives within one's own religious tradition may not allow for more than one religious approach.... [But we must] hesitate to absolutise any of the approaches within one or other plurality as the only true approach.... All religions, and ale approaches within each one of them, are relative to the Absolute Truth [God].... The worst of all defiance is to be locked up within one's own tradition and refuse to embrace each and every one, whatever his or her face and creed.[18]

Likewise deeply involved as critical-thinking, committed Muslims in interreligious dialogue not only with Christians but also with Jews--and others--are the Moroccan Khalid Duran,[19] and the Palcistani/American Riffat Hassan.[20]

Duran, the Muslim Coordinator of the International Scholars Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue, insists that "Islamic religion--or 'normative' Islam--provides ample scope for a concept of mission adjustable to a pluralist society."[21] He centers this claim in the "central theme of Al-Qur'an, namely, humanity's responsibility for this world, its mission as God's vicegerent--humanity as the administrator (Caliph) of the earth. This is a broader sense of mission and a more essential one than that of mere proselytizing."

As such, there is no inherent inability in Islam to conceive of mission as something above and beyond proselytizing. The difficulty lies with an onerous historical legacy that has come to be misunderstood as Islam per se. It would be patently wrong to gloss over this formidable obstacle to pluralism. Muslims need to be made aware of the disparities between their faith and their practice. This will remain difficult as long as education remains the privilege of a few percent of the population, with the standards of religious education, moreover, on the decline.[22]

Duran then moves in the direction of strongly advocating the separation of religion and state in his promotion of what he refers to as "secularism," which he insists is needed "as a means of protecting Muslims against themselves, or, more precisely, of protecting some Muslims against some others--not to speak of secularism as a protection of non-Muslims from Muslims."[23]

Riffat Hassan has been active in the Trialogue in America since 1979, and recently established an ongoing Christian-Muslim Dialogue in her native Pakistan. Her reflections on human rights recognize the need for reform:

It is imperative that Muslims rethink their position on all vital issues, since we can no longer afford the luxury of consoling ourselves for our present miseries and misfortunes by an uncritical adulation of a romanticized past. History has brought us to a point where rhetoric will not rescue us from reality and where the discrepancies between Islamic theory and Muslim practice will have to be accounted for.[24]

Hassan goes on to insist that "human rights .. . are so deeply rooted in our humanness that their denial or violation is tantamount to a negation or degradation of that which makes us human.... [They] were created, as we were, by God in order that our human potential could be actualized." Because human rights are not a human invention, "I do not look for their origin or essence in books of law or history but in those books of scripture which contain God's eternal message and guidance to humankind."[25] Hassan spells out at least seventeen specific human rights asserted in the Qur'an and ends her essay with criticism, plus a note of "hope against hope":

If Muslims were to exercise all the human rights granted to humankind by God, they would create a Paradise on earth and have no need to spend their time and energy dreaming about the "hur" promised in the afterlife. Unfortunately, at this time the spectrum before us appears very bleak, as more and more human rights disappear under the pressure of mounting fanaticism and traditionalism in many areas of the Muslim world. I am particularly concerned about serious violations of human rights pertaining to the rights of women, the rights of minorities, the right of the accused to due process of law, and the right of the Muslim masses to be free of dictatorships.
In the end we have what seems to be an irreconcilable gulf between Qur'anic ideals and the realities of Muslim living. Can this gulf be bridged? To me, the answer is immaterial, because those of us who believe that human rights cannot be abandoned, even when they are being denied and aborted, will continue to strive and hope and pray for the securing of these rights--regardless of the chances of success or failure.[26]

Hassan, besides being deeply involved in interreligious dialogue, is also striving to finish a major book on women in Islam, and has already published a number of essays on the topic.[27]

Since 1989, the Annual International Scholars Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue has been meeting in the United States and Europe; the twenty-seven scholars, nine from each of the three traditions, come from all over the world. In addition there is now an organization of progressive Muslim theologians in the United States, the Islamic Institute for Research and Planning; contact persons are Professors Fathi Osman, Khalid Duran, and Riffat Hassan. Important as this scholarly work is, however, the dialogue must also be translated to the middle and grass-roots levels. That in part is the responsibility of the readers of this essay. Notes

[1]. For a brief history of perhaps the longest-lived (1978-84), most organized trialogue, see the report by Eugene Fisher, "Kennedy Institute Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 19, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 197-200. In April, 1989, another ongoing trialogue, this time international, sponsored by the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, held its first, very successful three-day meeting; the fifth was held in January, 1993 in Graz, Austria. A dialogue between Muslims and Himdus has been launched, but only on a relatively small scale to date. one such between Riffat Hassan and Kana Mitra was sponsored by the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 1985 and was published in Leonard Swidler, ea., Religious Liberty and Human Rights in Nations and Religions (New York and Philadelphia: Hippocrene Books and Ecumenical Press, 1986), 109-42. A miniature dialogue between Islam and Buddhism also took place at the same conference between Mohammed Talbi and Masao Abe and was published in ibid.; both are reprinted in Leonard Swidler, ea., Muslims in Dialogue (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992).

[2]. Ecclesiam suam, no. 78, quoted in Austin Flannery, Vatican Council 11 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1975), 1003.

[3]. The Muslim scholar in question was Fathi osman, who taught with me at Temple University in 1975-76; he recently returned to the United States and joined the Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue. See: Fathi osman, Zalman Schachter, Gerard Sloyan, and Dermot Lane, "Jesus in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 14 no. 3 (Summer 1977): 448-65.

[4]. Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 125.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Smail Balic, Ruf vom Minareth (Berlin, 1979), 90.

[7]. Cited in Rotraud Wielandt, Offenbarung und Geshichte im Denken moderner Muslime (Wiesbaden. E Steiner, 1971), 159.

[8]. His statement, made at a Christian-Muslim dialogue in Bonn (1981), is cited in M. S. Abdulla, ed., Der Glaube in Kulture: Recht und Politik (Mainz: Hase & Koehler, 1982), 142.

[9]. Mohammad Arkoun, "New Perspectives for a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 25, no. 3 (Summer 1989).

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Rahman, Islam, 5, 8.

[12]. Ibid., 20.

[13]. Ibid., 7.

[14]. Ibid., 144.

[15]. Ibid., 145.

[16]. See Abdullahi Ahmed El Naiem, "A Modern Approach to Human Rights in Islam: Foundations and Implications for Africa," in Claude Welch and Ronald Meltzer, eds., Human Rights and Development in Africa (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 75-89; "Religious Freedom in Egypt Under the Shadow of the Islamic Dhimma System," Swidler, Religious Liberty an d Human Rights, 43 62. An-Na'im translated Taha's 1967 fundamental work The Second Message of Islam (Syracuse University PKSS, 1987), but because An-Na'im was also imprisoned for years, the English translation was published only in 1987. See also Abdullahi An-Na'im, "Mahmud Muhammad Taha and the Crisis in Islamic Law Reform: Implications for Interreligious Relations," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 25, no.1 (Winter 1988): 1-21,

[17]. From a lecture given at a conference sponsored by the Journal of Ecumenical Studies at Temple University, November 3-8, 1985: "Religious Tolerance and Human Rights within the International Community, within Nations and within Religions." An earlier version had been delivered at the Second World Congress on Religious Liberty in Ronte, September 3-4, 1984. Published as "Religious Liberty: A Muslim Perspective," in Swidler, Religious Liberty, 181, 187.

[18]. Hasan Askari, Within and Beyond the Experience of Religious Diversity," John Hick, Hasan Askari, eds. The Experience of Religious Diversity (Aldershot, Hants., England: Gower, 1985), 191, 217. See also his article, "The Dialogical Relationship between Christianity and Islam," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 9, no.3 (Summer 1972).

[19]. See, e.g., Khalid Duran, "Muslim openness to Dialogue," Leonard Swidler, ea., Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987), 210-17; "Religious Liberty and Human Rights in the Sudan," Swidler, Religious Liberty, 61-78.

[20]. See, e.g., Riffat Hassan, "Messianism and Islam," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22, no. (Spring 1985): 261-91; "The basis for a Hindu-Muslim Dialogue and Steps in that Direction from a Muslim Perspective," Swidler, Religious Liberty, 125-42.

[21]. Khalid Duran, "Muslims and Non-Muslims," in Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, eds., Attitudes of Religions and Ideologies toward the Outsider (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 97; and in Leonard Swidler, Muslims in Dialogue (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 103.

[22]. Ibid., 103f.

[23]. Ibid., 108.

[24]. Riffat Hassan, "On Human Rights and the Qur'anic Perspective," in Arlene Swidler, ea., Human Rights in Religious Traditions (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982), 54; and in Leonard Swidler, ea., Muslims in Dialogue (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 449.

[25]. Ibid., 450. [26]. Ibid., 463.

[27]. See, e.g., Riffat Hassan, "'Jihad Fi Sabil Allah': A Muslim Woman's Faith Journey from Struggle to Struggle to Struggle," Leonard Grob, Riffat Hassan, and Haim Gordon, eds., Women's and Men's Liberation-Testimonies of Spirit (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 11-30; "The Issue of Woman-Man Equality in the Islamic Tradition," ibid., 65-82.


By Leonard Swidler


LEONARD SWIDLER, Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, is editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and author over fifty books including A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991), and Muslim in Dialogue: The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992).

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter92/93, Vol. 42 Issue 4, p444, 9p.