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How Can Interfaith Work Be Planned to Be Useful?

06/16/2015 06:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Many people of religion have grave doubts about the worth and utility of interfaith dialogue, dismissing it entirely. Interfaith work can appear to be leading nowhere and accomplishing nothing relevant or useful. While there are those who support interfaith work, there are others who could not be bothered, seeing it as a waste of time. These people are missing something: they are often losing a strategic opportunity to train their own scholars and activists, stimulate the revivification of their own religious tradition, or even to work on peace building.

Interfaith work can be very useful for religionists who know how to plan and use dialogue, who are prepared beforehand and are approaching it with the right understanding. For dialogue to be made useful, what I firstly want to suggest seeing is that there can be three parts to dialogue: preparation beforehand, the actual dialogue, and the follow-up phase. In brief, the preparation beforehand involves adequate study of our own religion as well as that of the dialogue partner, the actual dialogue will be comparatively short but will provide useful material, especially useful being material from people whom we definitely disagree with. The final followup, "post-encounter," phase in our own community with our own scholars can be the most important one as that is where the real examination and inquiry into matters is taking place. This post-encounter reflection and inquiry can happen over a long period of time, meaning the benefits of deeper inquiry in response to disagreement need not be limited to any particular time frame, especially if we have been paying careful attention and taking notes. This also means that, if we participate sincerely, we can be learning something that may become known to us later.

To explain more what is meant here, we can take an example of where there are Christians and Muslims both who are each trained in their own ways to impose doctrine, argue that their own perspective is right and argue how others are mistaken. This might even be described as a polite monologue, as opposed to a real dialogue, and can be potentially very frustrating for people who wanted, expected or hoped for some ultimate agreement. This disagreement, however, can be quite useful if it is taken as only a stage in the extended protocol which involves a follow-up phase of inquiry in one's own community. For example, if Muslims are told that, "Salvation can only happen according to the following Christıan teachings," they have been intellectually and spiritually prepared beforehand amongst Islamic scholars about the topic of salvation in Islam before the dialogue and meeting with Christians. They also have a follow-up with Islamic scholars after the dialogue with Christians pursuing deeper inquiry about the Islamic understanding of salvation. Another major topic of concern is love, which is always very important to talk about. Christians put much emphasis on love and love exists also in Islam and needs to be discussed more. Other important topics could be taken up such as Muslim environmentalism (see Tarik M. Quadir (2013) "Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr," Lanham, Maryland/Plymouth, U.K., Rowman/University Press of America). What is important to understand are the end results of a properly functioning dialogue plan which includes the necessary follow-up in one's own community: this results in deeper inquiry into one's own tradition instead of merely imposing doctrine. Seen this way, dialogue becomes a strategic tool and methodology to train newer activists and scholars and to stimulate deeper inquiry into one's own religion, if the preparation and follow-up process is followed. It can also mean that we can talk to almost anybody formally, with proper etiquette, respect and good manners, and we can make this work productive.

Dialogue, however, can achieve a lot more than this and the whole purpose of dialogue should be examined. Thinking about peace building in Islam should be an integral part of the preparation for dialogues and we can realize that there is very much work still to be done, creating understanding of the religious other and ultimately of ourselves. Abu-Nimer provides a good description of the field of peace building. (See Mohammed Abu-Nimer (2003) "Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: A Framework," Gainesville, FL, University Press of Florida.) Shafiq and Abu-Nimer provide also additional practical guidance for Muslims approaching interfaith work. (See Muhammad Shafiq and Mohammed Abu-Nimr (2007) "Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide for Muslims" Herndon Virginia, International Institute of Islamic Thought.)

Citing many Qur'anic references in his work, Abu-Nimer suggests an "Islamic peace-building framework," applied to a context of community socio-economic development" leading to certain benefits. (Abu-Nimer; 2003, 82-83). Abu-Nimer also outlines certain principles inherent in his suggested peace-building framework, and some of these include, "the universality and dignity of humanity, equality, the sacredness of human life, a quest for peace, peacemaking, knowledge and reason, creativity and innovation....(also) inclusivity and participatory processes, and pluralism and diversity" (Abu-Nimer 48-84) My own thought is that this Islamic source material from both Abu-Nimer and also Shafiq and Abu-Nimer can become part of an integral strategy of being properly prepared, encountering the religious other outside of our religion and then pursuing deeper inquiry after the dialogue. If this effort is sustained and repeated, this can mean establishing better relations (peace building) with the religious other and also within our community. So dialogue is really only useless and a waste of time if we don't know how to use it. In the long run, we can plan to use it generally to revivify religion, train scholars and to promote peace building. It could also be mentioned that, while there is disagreement, sometimes we do agree. This can be interesting.