Interfaith and Intrafaith Relations is a chapter from the book American Muslim Agenda available at Amazon and Kindle
Who was the first human to hold an interfaith dialogue?
It was nice to see a few hands go up. One of them said, “Warith Deen Muhammad.” That was a good response. He was indeed the first Muslim in America to initiate a dialogue with Christians and Jews. He was rightfully called the Imam of America.
The question was asked again. Historically, who was the first human to hold an interfaith dialogue?
There was dead silence. Someone pointed to me, and I laughed. I am not a historical person. There were a lot of Muslims, and no one knew that.
Prophet Muhammad may be the first individual to hold an interfaith dialogue as he had the opportunity to deal with several faiths. Zarathustra, Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus did not have that opportunity. They dealt with those who did not believe or those who deviated from the given belief.
Muhammad had that opportunity to have a conversation with Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, pagans, and the Sabeans (other).
His teachings reflected the idea that Islam is not a new religion. Religion is a natural outcome of restoring coherence in a chaotic society. Indeed, that is precisely what Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and other great masters did. Krishna explicitly said through Bhagavad Gita, “Whenever a society rots, I [meaning the goodness] will emerge from among you and restore dharma [that is, righteousness].”
Religion is a system designed to bring sanity to the society, where each one of us can live freely as individuals, without fear of the other. You will find a lot of the same values reflected in each faith.
A mother among the Zulu tribe, Amazon jungles, New York City, or Banaras knows precisely what to do when her baby cries. Similarly, no matter where you live, the wisdom to live cohesively is identical. Why should the “essence” of the Quran be different from the Torah, Bhagavad Gita, Bible, Jaina, Book of Mormon, or Kitáb-i-Aqdas?
The Quran says God has sent a peacemaker (broader term to include prophets, messengers, and other great souls) to every tribe and every nation. Those who don’t believe in God can see the validity in the statement from a common-sense point of view. Do you recall a dispute in your family, your workplace, a football game, a mosque, a church, a synagogue, the Trump administration, or the United Nations where everyone is fighting over an issue? There was always one among the many who spoke up, and suddenly, everyone was at ease with the solution. That is what Allah or Krishna meant—a peacemaker to every group because God loves us and wants us to live in harmony. Harmony is the ultimate will of God.
Why Is Interfaith Dialogue Necessary?
Let’s face the facts. There are a handful of rabbis, imams, pastors, pundits, gyanis, shamans, and clergies who are downright honest about others’ faiths. These men and women can play a significant role in bringing people together toward the idea of one nation for everyone to live their lives securely.
There are religious bigots in the garb of clergy who make an ass of you by denigrating others’ religions. What do they know about the others? If you get a chance to visit the First Baptist Church of Dallas, listen to Pastor Robert Jeffress. He condemns Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, and just about every faith. He said, “Islam is a false religion preached by a false prophet.” He was greeted by nonstop applause and a standing ovation.
The problem is not the religion but his congregation who gave a standing ovation, encouraging evil speeches.
Baptists don’t do that; the individuals do that. For every lousy apple Baptist preacher, there are thousands of great Baptist preachers. There is Bob Roberts, George Mason, Rick Love, Jim Eaton, Richard Cizik, Sel Harris, Paul Murray, and thousands of others who preach tough love.
Indeed, I have dedicated the section “Islamic Value No. 12: Civil Dialogue” to Bob Roberts and Ambassador Sam Brownback. One of these days, I will devote a chapter to each of my friends in the interfaith world.
How often do you hear an evangelical pastor present Mormon faith to his congregants as a Mormon deacon would present?
How often do you hear a reformed rabbi present Orthodox Judaism in a positive light?
How often do you hear a Sunni imam talk positively about a Shia or vice versa?
How often do you hear Hindus uplift Hindus from lower castes?
Not often. Even if they fake it for public consumption, they always come up with a butt but. The story is the same with people of all faiths. That is downright dishonesty.
A religious person should never put down other faiths. If they do, watch them out. Either they are bigoted, or they have zero knowledge about others, or they just don’t follow their religion.
This is the reason an honest dialogue is necessary among faith leaders. Religion is designed to bring sanity to people, to restore righteousness among people, and not to make them arrogant that they are the best. Who cares?
Dialogue is necessary to understand that the Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the Jewish god fought with one another in a bloody battle and one of them won the battle. The winner did not kill other people’s God; he took them all and became one.
The final god is a good god. He is neither your property nor mine. He does not make a deal with you behind my back. Why would I want a sneaky god like that?
What purpose does it serve to know the other?
When we live as neighbors, fellow workers, students, players, activists, and inhabitants of the same city, it behooves us to learn about one another’s beliefs, motivations, moments of celebrations, devotions, or commemorations. The more we know about the other, the less mythical they would become, creating a friendly environment for all of us to function efficiently in whatever we do. Knowledge leads to understanding and understanding to acceptance of the otherness of others, leading us into tension free and sustainable prosperity.
In the early part of the second decade 2010, I was writing at Dallas Morning News in the “Texas Faith” column. That was the time I was on TV on Fox News about the Ground Zero Mosque. I am thankful to several fellow writer-pastors in Dallas for writing their opinions in support of the mosque.
In June 2011, the city of San Francisco and Santa Monica put a referendum to the public to ban circumcision. I wrote an op-ed at the Huffington Post, followed by several rabbis urging the people to withdraw it, and finally, they did.
In the same year, Russia showed the bigotry toward Hinduism and had banned the Bhagavad Gita. I was one of the thousands of people that appealed, and my friends heeded my call and flooded the Russian embassy. They withdrew the ban.
In 2009 in Indonesia, a fanatic crowd burned a Christian church on the day of Muharram. We made the appeal, and donations were sent to rebuild the church. Many Muslims participated in the donations, and the Jakarta Post highlighted the petition in their paper.
If we stand up for one another, all of us will live in peace. By the way, that will be my next book—Standing Up for Others.
The sparks of conflict between Jews and Christians lie dormant and takes the ugly form of anti-Semitism and flares up every now and them. It will not go away unless they accept that Jews did not kill Jesus but that was the practice of the time to execute a dissenter.
The deeply rooted ill will for Muslims among Jews is frequently cashed by Netanyahu for his political gains. Prophet Muhammad is accused of watching the beheading of approximately seven hundred Banu Qurayza Jews after the war of the trench in Medina. The under-the-radar resentment will not go away until Muslims clearly prove and say that Muhammad did not kill Jews but that the killing was ordered as a punishment for betrayal by the Jewish tradition. Madinah had adopted a constitution where Jews, Christians, and others were governed by their own religious laws.
In the sanctuaries of most of the churches around the world are the reverberating sound “Islam is a false religion.” This is a statement made by a Christian pastor in Syria in the ninth century to keep his flock from losing to Islam. He saw that Jesus was described as a prophet by Islam instead of the son of God, and to him, that was a lie.
The Hindus have been forcibly converted by Christians and Muslims in the past, and even now, you hear about harvesting the souls in their annual conventions. It is disgusting to listen to that from the men who represent the teachings of love from Jesus or Muhammad who was a mercy to mankind.
We have to face these issues squarely. Most of the interfaith dialogues are primary in nature, built on fellowship. It is time to deal with the tough questions. I have written to Pope Francis, my imam and my hero, to deal with these issues or assign me the responsibility to take this up and work on putting these conflicts behind and focus on poverty, education, pluralism, and prosperity—the real battles of the world. Today he is one of the rare God’s men who are like God, embracing all and rejecting none.
It takes away the ill will and fears you have of others so you can live your life and others can live theirs.
You are welcome to plug in Mike Ghouse with name of any religion or any festival, and you will find the info on the net or visit www.CenterforPluralism.com and even www.WorldMuslimCongress.org.
If we can learn to respect the otherness of others and accept the God-given uniqueness of each one of us, then conflicts fade and solutions emerge.
Islam is about decimating arrogance, the root cause of all evil. Islam is about humility and equality. It has many built-in features to knock out any idea of superiority of one over the other. Pluralism is deeply rooted in Islam.
When he said in his last sermon as his previous advice to humans, he said, “No Arab is superior to the other. No white man is excellent to the other or vice versa. Treat all humans with dignity and respect.” It is a statement to decimate arrogance.
Do Muslims follow this?
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had mentioned that his followers would eventually form themselves into seventy-two groups. Please note that the number seventy-two is a metaphorical number, meaning many or even infinite. Then he suggested that everyone should race to do good things. A good deed is something you do for others without any benefit to yourself, such as planting a tree, knowing fully well that when that plant becomes a huge tree and bears fruit or shadow, you will not be the beneficiary.
However, like all humans, Muslims fall for arrogance. Other groups have to be wrong for them to be right. They have misinterpreted the idea of “all should compete in doing good” to mean only one of them is right and others are wrong. How un-Islamic! When a teacher asks her students to do well in the class, she wants all to do well; she wants everyone to score a hundred. But as it happens, different scores are achieved by each person. I am sure a few will fail, but most will pass. That is what the Prophet’s wisdom is about.
The ultimate achievement of religion, any religion for that matter, is to restore balance within one’s soul, heart, and mind.
Like all other human endeavors and religions, Islam has many denominations or unique groupings among Muslims. What we need to do is respect God’s wisdom and be respectful of the otherness of others. After all, only God has the authority to judge what is in one’s hearts and not us. Neither are we accountable for others’ actions, except stopping wrongdoing to fellow beings. There is no Muslim who does not recite this sentence, a part of the very first chapter of the Quran, “مَـالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّين.” Islam is about justness, fairness, dignity, and equality of all of God’s creation.
A Muslim is someone who accepts God, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and the Quran as guidance, and anyone who calls themselves a Muslim is a Muslim. Only God knows what is in one’s heart, and no one has a right to declare the other anything less. If they do, they are committing the gravest of sins called shirk, that is, diluting God’s domain of decision-making and speaking on behalf of God.
After the death of the Prophet, a political struggle began for the leadership of the state. Apparently, as it happens today, it happened then.
Abu Bakr Siddique (RA) and Hazrat Ali (RA) were competing. The consensus was to go with Abu Bakr Siddique, and he was elected to be the first caliph, the leader. The supporters of Hazrat Ali were disappointed. Then after the death of Abu Bakr Siddique, Hazrat Umar was elected; then again, Uthman won. Finally, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph. By then, his supporters had grown into a faction of their own.
Theologically, Hazrat Ali should have been the first caliph as he was the first one to believe the message of the Prophet and perhaps the most knowledgeable about Islam as taught by the prophet. Politically, Abu Bakr Siddique had more clout to bring coherence to the chaos of the day.
Over a period, the chasm between the two groups grew to the point of creating secondary books to justify each position. The unwise men kept piling on the differences rather than reconciling them.
Yet another, the new movement came in to being in the late nineteenth century, headed by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Almost all Muslims believe that Jesus will come back to the world to restore righteousness and harmony. The great teacher Mirza Ghulam Ahmad felt that he was the promised messiah.
I am disappointed in my fellow Muslims for hating and denigrating one another. An evangelical pastor told me once, “It is easy to keep the Muslims fighting.” He said, “They fight like dogs when you throw the bones of religious difference at them as if that were the only thing worth fighting for.” I have seen relentless attacks by both the Sunnis and Shias against Ahmadiyya Muslims.
For the first time in the history of the United States, if not the world, in 2013, we held a conference bringing Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya Muslims together. It was organized by the Boniuk Institute at Rice University in Houston. A two-hour video of the conference is at the Rice University archives and the World Muslim Congress archives, thanks to Mr. Boniuk and Mike Pardee for organizing and letting me moderate this tough topic.
Check the video at www.MuslimSpeaker.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=TNGfBUXGm4I.
The second time the Ahmadiyya, Sunni, and Shia Muslims came together was when the Center for Pluralism held a peaceful interfaith event on the eve of the Quran-burning incident in Melbourne, Florida. A part of the program was to pray two units of Muslim prayers, and typically, they don’t pray together as they do not accept anyone to lead the prayer as an imam. Fortunately, I did not have any bias toward anyone, and they all agreed to pray in the prayers I led.
The third time around was in Dallas, Texas. We celebrated Prophet Muhammad’s birthday through poetry recitation called mushaira. Each denomination of Muslims—including Ahmadiyya, Bohra, Ismaili, Shia, Sufi, Sunni—W. D. Muhammad sang in praise of Prophet Muhammad, along with Jain, Hindu, and Sikh reciters.
I chose to become a Muslim and follow the Islam that the Prophet taught. No denomination for me. Thank God for giving me the heart of a Muslim with prejudice toward none! The Prophet will not recognize anyone if they claim that they are Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi. He will ask, “What is that?”
No one is wrong. The Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis, and their many subgroups were given to believe in certain things. That is how each one is raised. You cannot ask anyone to feel otherwise or compel them to think otherwise.
All religions are like amoeba, a single-celled organism, that splits and keeps splitting. It has happened with every faith, except new faiths, who will eventually find division as their numbers grow. Islam is no different. It is all about human nature, and human life is to differ from the other, so it is natural for the growing community to split.
Like all creation, every human seeks their own balance; there will always be a continuous struggle among guilt, repentance, recognition, restoration, and redemption.
Four Distinct Groups: Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, and the Nation of Islam
Most other denominations you hear are subgroups of Sunni and Shia.
The Sunni group has many subdenominations as it is with Protestant Christianity or Hinduism, while Shia has a few groups within.
Sunni mainstream, Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Sunnat, Ahl-i Hadith, Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Hanbali, Maliki, W. D. Muhammad, Sufis, and several others are part of the Sunni tradition created by men after the Prophet.
Shia Mainstream, Twelvers, Ismaili, Bohra, Alawis, and Others
The Ahmadiyya branch of Islam is relatively new, and even this group has split into Lahore and mainstream Ahmadiyya groups.
The message of the Quran is universal. According to the Quran, God Almighty rewards any righteous believer irrespective of the name of the religion.
In the name of GOD, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. (Quran 1:1)
This above verse is a dominant verse in all the 114 chapters of the Quran, and the very first verse in 113 sections, highlighting the most critical aspect of God over anything else.
The Shia and Sunni Muslims have ganged up on the Ahmadiyya Muslims, and shamefully, Pakistan’s constitution declares them as non-Muslims. Ironically, the whole purpose of Islam was to bring equality to mankind. There are controversies about the teachings of Ahmadiyya, which traditions do not have them.
In a hypothetical situation, if Muslims were to complain to Trump about discrimination in the United States, his policymakers can easily shame us. They can say, “Look, if you treat your minorities with dignity, we will treat you with dignity. If you justify your prejudice against them, we can do the same to you.” I did not expect American Muslims; of course, they are few in numbers who need to fix their attitudes. Islam is a free religion, but we have to show it with our beliefs and actions that it is.
What needs to be done is for Muslims to come together and declare that we are all Muslims, forming into seventy-two (or infinite) tribes. It would be shirk (dilution of God’s dominion) for any human to declare the other as less than Muslim. Together, we are made to serve humanity and care for God’s creation and not fight with them.
A shameful response from my fellow Muslims has belligerently come through when a step is taken. I have hoped the new generation of American Muslims rejects the stinky attitudes of some of their parents who poison them against the other.
The good news is our imams, a majority of them, have been a part of the interfaith movement and are free from such prejudices. Whenever I have asked them to pray for one another’s well-being, many of them have done it.
Roots of Pluralism in Islam
Say, “We believe in GOD, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them. To Him alone we are submitters.” (Quran 2:136)
According to the Quran, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
We have honored the children of Adam, and provided them with rides on land and in the sea. We provided for them good provisions, and we gave them greater advantages than many of our creatures. (Quran 17:70)
Islam is also called a religion of fitra (of human nature). Human are unique with their own thumbprint, eye print, taste buds, religion bud, and DNA.
O, men! Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware. (Muhammad Asad, Quran 49:13).
We believe in GOD, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them. To Him alone we are submitters. (Quran 2:136)
Make no distinction between them. Accept their uniqueness of race, ethnicity, religion, and traditions. No one is superior.
Indeed, God has intentionally created each one of us to be unique and made us into many tribes, communities, nations, and of course, the Quran acknowledges different religions as well. With that uniqueness, he expects us to have conflicts among us but then offers guidance and says, “The best ones among you are those who learn about one another.” What happens when you understand one another? Conflicts fade and solutions emerge for living in harmony.
Is there a need to reconcile the differences? Not at all. There is no need to reconcile. It is human nature to divide themselves into ideas, religion, politics, cultures, and nations. Shia, Sunni, and Ahmadiyya divisions are natural. There is no need to compel anyone to believe otherwise. Islam forbids compulsion (Quran 2:256) against one’s will without ifs and buts, and I hope all of us get that message right.
However, there is a need to understand one another and accept their uniqueness.
Islam is not a private club owned by stockholders who decide who should be a member and who should not. Islam is a public religion, like a public park where all are welcome to enjoy being here or choose not to come. It is time for Muslims to respectfully accept each denomination as valid and believe in Allah’s wisdom expressed in the Quran in so many verses, particularly Quran 49:13, 109:6, and 2:256.
God wants all his creation to be free from fear and conflicts and wants everyone to achieve freedom. He wants everyone to be in harmony with oneself and with what surrounds them—life and environment.