By Mona Siddiqui
Director, Centre for the Study of Islam
Glasgow University, Scotland
It seems to me that the more I research religion, the more I find the word knowledge in its broadest sense: that knowledge is a divine gift not confined to the religious sphere of any one religion, and that the pursuit of knowledge in every great faith is inextricably linked with the great virtues of justice, hope and love. Its pursuit is a noble exercise of the mind and body, but knowledge is perfected only when it is followed by doing what is right, doing what is good. Religious faith itself when directed to God can be emptied of dogma and doctrine but it will always hold good deeds as noble values in themselves, good deeds are what God himself desires. As the Qur’an says, “If God had wanted, He could have made you one community. So compete with one another in doing good deeds, so that He may test you by what he has given you.” (5:48)
Muslims historically have had differing attitudes to other religions, especially Jewish and Christian communities. In turning to the Qur’an, unity and diversity of humanity are coexisting themes in the Qur’an and can be interpreted to support either inclusivist or exclusivist claims. Many Muslim exegetes fleshed this out into a particular understanding – that the primordial religion of all people was Islam i.e., people who were Allah’s servants in their submission to him started with Adam, considered to be the first Prophet.
The issue is not that Jews and Christians are not recognized for these were established faiths and communities by the 6th century and moreover Muslims must acknowledge past prophets as part of their devotional creed. The tensions lay in how they are to be perceived theologically as well as in socio-legal relations with Muslims.
On the one hand it seems to me that as societies change and cultures migrate, there is inevitability to people living, and learning, together. The essential question is that within the context of civil society, how do Muslims see their engagement as minorities and majority citizens, and what resources do they draw upon? Will the human experience of living and working with different peoples and cultures be the ultimate factor in determining how pluralism will develop organically from within or will variant textual readings of the Qur’an mean that the non-believer i.e., every non-Muslim may never be truly embraced as a spiritual equal?
One may well ask whether academics and other faith representatives really hope to have an impact on world politics or conflicts. Why should scriptural reflection remain a central imperative of interreligious activity? Among those of us who have been involved in interreligious work either as an intellectual exercise or through an ethical imperative, I am sure I am not alone in thinking that where there is outright conflict amongst people, religious dialogue on its own can not lead to peace and reconciliation. What function does dialogue hold when people are being blown up, their families and homes destroyed? Unless dialogue is backed by the political will to effect change, it remains a noble exercise with little more than a limited reconciliatory impact.
Furthermore, many in the West are aware that despite media frenzy at times, dialogue is not a necessity; it is an option, even a privilege. Interreligious work can be a symbol of unity across civilisations and it can also reverberate amongst the followers of the faith. But it works best when there is both text and context. There are many Muslims and Christians who remain convinced that dialogue is fundamentally flawed, not just theologically but also in practical terms. How can Muslims and Christians talk about the same God when they hold such different understandings of the same God? If dialogue is not directed at conversion to Christ or to the event of the Qur’an, what is its real purpose? There may be some truth in this.
But for me, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are about fulfilling a revealed message. We have all got it wrong at times and we will continue to get it wrong if we do not think and act with compassion. Compassion is not some theological abstraction. If for me as a Muslim, God is ultimately defined as the most merciful, then how do I live out that mercy in my daily life surrounded most of the time by people who have a different faith or no faith? Our search for God is no metaphor – it lies in the lived realities of our relationship with others, it demands sacrifices and patience, but most of all it demands a level of joy in being able to share and live together despite conflict which is part of the human condition.
Interreligious work has never been about implicit or explicit conversion. As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learned that faith speaks to faith in a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly, it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference. Engaging in dialogue is an extension of ihsan for me, `To Act knowing that even if you cannot see Him (God), He can see you.’
To return to the beginning, perhaps our salvation lies only in perfected knowledge: the good that we do and the good that we strive for.
Mona Siddiqui, Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam at Glasgow University, is a regular guest commentator for BBC Radio, BBC World Service, BBC Scotland, and Radio Free Europe (Central Asia); she writes for the Times (London), The Scotsman, Guardian and The Herald and is the first Muslim columnist for the Catholic weekly, The Tablet.
April 20May 5, Professor Siddiqui will be honorary Lecturer at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (“Angelicum”) in Rome, where she will address Catholic, Jewish and Muslim students and dignitaries at the 3rd Annual Pope John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Dialogue, co-sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation of Teaneck, NJ.