Adis Duderija was born in Bosnia in 1977. He is currently lecturing at the University of Malaya, Malaysia .He received his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Western Australia in contemporary Islamic hermeneutics. His research interests include contemporary Islamic hermeneutics, gender, inter-religious dialogue and western Muslims’ identity dynamics, on which he has published extensively. He is the author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation, and editor of two volumes: Maqasid-al-sharia and Contemporary Reformist Muslim Thought and The Concept and Evolution of Sunna in Early Islamic Thought (forthcoming). He also maintains a blog: adisduderija.blogspot.com
In this interview with Roshan Shah, he reflects on issues related to Islam, Muslims and interfaith dialogue.
Q: What, in your view, should be the basis of interfaith dialogue?
A: The basis for interfaith dialogue should be the acknowledgement of every human being’s humanity and basic dignity, regardless of their religious or any other background. When two people are engaged in a dialogue, they embark on a search for common meaning though a process of a mutual inquiry, and in the spirit of cooperation they suspend any preconceived assumptions of the other prior to entering it. Through dialogue, its participants become consciously ‘vulnerable’, seeking deeper understanding of the other (and thereby the self) with the aim of generating empathy and increased sensitivity for humanity and the inherent dignity and difference of the other. It is a process of bringing the hearts (and not necessarily the minds) of those engaged in dialogue together.
Willingness to exercise introspection and self-criticism are also essential ingredients of those engaging in dialogue. For dialogue to be meaningful, its participants must establish mutual trust and approach dialogue with integrity and honesty.
Q: What do you feel should be the purpose(s) of interfaith dialogue?
A: What I outlined above about the nature of dialogue in general also applies to interreligious dialogue. What is peculiar to interreligious dialogue is that, given the above, it does not seek doctrinal agreement or conversion, but is a process of enriching one’s own faith by gaining a better understanding of the other and establishing respect for those who belong to a different religious tradition. Meaningful interreligious dialogue also brings about the multifaceted, complex and contested nature of the participants’ own religious traditions and does not neglect the cacophony of diverse and, at times, marginalized voices that make up each religious tradition itself. At the collective or communal level, interfaith dialogue has an important role in promoting social cohesion and as a form of non-violent resistance to any form of injustice and unfair treatment.
Q: What does Islam say about interfaith dialogue? Can you please elaborate with the help of references to the Quran and Hadith?
A: This is a complex question. The Islamic tradition, like any other religious tradition, is open to many interpretations on many issues, including that of interfaith dialogue. It is the respective interpretational models governing these textual sources as well as interpretations of Muslim history that will determine the outcome of the interpretation. If interpreted holistically and with due consideration to the historical context in which the revelation was reveled and which it in many ways mirrored, the normative sources of Islam—the Qur’an and Sunna—in my view present us with many opportunities for a fruitful and constructive interfaith dialogue.
To understand how Muslims have approached (and still approach) interreligious dialogue, in addition examining scriptural sources more needs to be said about the context in which Islam first appeared. The context of the emergence of Prophet Muhammad’s message in seventh century Arabia as evident in the Qur’an was such that it took place alongside other already well-established religious communities, most important of which were, apart from Arabian pre-Qur’anic beliefs, Judaism, Hanifiyyah (Arabian monotheism based on the faith of Abraham) and Christianity.
It is important to note in this context that the very fabric and nature of the Qur’an clearly depicts many of the events and the nature of the relationship between the Muslim community and the non-Muslim Other during the revelatory period. Here it is essential to point out that the Qur’anic attitude (and, therefore, the Prophet Muhammad’s praxis) towards the religious Other was highly contextual in nature and therefore context-dependent, if not ambivalent. The aspects of religious identity, continuity and commonality with other faiths, especially Judaism and Christianity (adherents of which the Qur’an refers to as Ahl-e Kitab, i.e. People of Scripture), are intertwined with those of the emergence and emphasis on the Muslim identity, originality and distinctiveness. In addition to this, in the Qur’an there are verses (e.g. 22:17;5:69;2:62) which place some of the Ahl-e Kitab adherents in very favourable light, while in some verses other members of the Ahl-e Kitab are strongly criticized for some of their beliefs and unjust practices, such as the belief in the Divine nature of Jesus (which Muslims understood as a form of shirk or polytheism), the distortion of the (meaning) of the previous texts of revelation (known as tahrif), or killing of previous Messengers of God . The reports about the Prophet Muhammad’s attitude regarding the religious other as given in the Hadith literature reflect this Qur’anic contextuality and possibly ambivalence via-a-vis the religious other. The Qur’an is, however, unequivocal on the importance and beauty of dialogue with just and upright religious others, as evident in the following verses:
Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.’ If they turn away, say, ‘Witness our devotion to Him.’(3:64)
[Prophet], call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided. (16:125)
[Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God are one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.’(29:46)
Q: Some people may claim that because many Muslims think of other religions as false or corrupted, Muslims see little point in dialogue.
What do you have to say?
A: I think that the kind of mentality and arguments you described do predominate among significant portions of Muslim community, especially among traditional religious leaders and their proponents. Indeed, for those who do adopt such a view, it is incommensurate with the nature of dialogue in its proper meaning as described above. For them, this ‘dialogue’ would amount to nothing more than a chance to ‘proselytise’.
Q: Some people may say that while Islam can tolerate other People of the Book, it has no such tolerance for others—people whom many Muslims label as ‘polytheists’ such as Hindus, Buddhists etc.—and that Islam gives them just two choices—death or conversion to Islam. Hence, they may contend, Islam does not envisage any possibility for dialogue and harmonious relations with people who are not considered by Muslims to be Ahl-e Kitab. What do you have to say?
A: Muslim history testifies to the fact that the Qur’anic category of Ahl-e Kitab was ‘extended’ to other religious communities apart from the Jewish and the Christian. It is very important to in this context have a historically sensitive understanding of the Qur’an when it talks about the ‘mushrikun’. In my view, these verses cannot be simply acontextually transplanted to very different contexts—e.g. Hinduism , Buddhism etc.
Q: What do you think should be meant when we talk about the need to respect other religions? Does it mean respecting these religions (their beliefs, practices etc), or respecting the right of their adherents to follow them?
A: For the purposes of governance and law, it is the latter, as long as they are based on a principle of a shared universal that does not undermine a person’s dignity and autonomy. As far as former is concerned, this can be achieved only at the level of the individual’s consciousness through education, because we cannot force someone to ‘respect’ another religion unless that person sees something inherently good and righteous in it that is common to all religions.
Q: Why is it that relatively few interfaith dialogues have been initiated by Muslims?
A: I am not sure that what you stated is entirely correct. Take for example the “Common Word” initiative taken by Muslim scholars and academics in the light of the famous Regensburg lecture given by the former Pope. There are many other similar initiatives. However, there is some truth in your question. Those Muslims who adopt a traditionalist mindset of Islam’s superiority ipso facto would not be capable of true dialogue.
Q: A lot of writings on other religions by Muslim writers on other faiths (even those that style themselves as ‘dialogues’) tend to be very tendentious and seek to brand them as false. They do not bother to try to empathetically understand these religions as their adherents actually understand them. How does this tendency impact on prospects for Muslims engaging in sincere interfaith dialogue?
A: It no doubt diminishes these prospects. I would suggest that non-Muslims attempt to reach out to these Muslim writers and present their point of view to them or ‘refute’ them by writing counter arguments.
Q: In the name of dialogue, some Muslim groups seek to rebut and criticize other religions and point out the (real or imaginary) errors in their scriptures and belief systems. Some try to prove other religions as inferior and mock them. They see this as one of the purposes of ‘dialogue’.
Is this at all compatible with the spirit of dialogue? Can this be called dialogue at all or is it simply inter-religious polemics?
A: It would simply amount to inter-religious polemics, to use your apt phrase, because this is entirely at odds with what genuine dialogue is about as discussed previously.
Q: There are hardly any genuine intra-Muslim dialogue efforts—dialogue between different Muslim ‘sects’. Intra Muslim, inter-sectarian polemics not only continue unabated (with each Muslim sect claiming to be the true, saved [najiyya] one), but they have sharply escalated in recent times in many places and in several countries have now assumed fiercely violent forms.
If the different Muslim sects cannot peacefully dialogue among themselves and see polemics and violence as the way to deal with their differences, can we seriously expect Muslims to be sincerely enthusiastic about dialoguing with people of other faiths?
A: This is a very important point. I attempted to establish on two occasions, some years ago, an academic journal on intra-Muslim dialogue. It never took off. In some places like Lebanon I think there has been some progress with regard to intra-Muslim dialogue, and perhaps the larger Muslim community can learn from it. However, as you suggested, the dynamics at play between intra-Muslim dialogue and interfaith dialogue are not too different.
Q: Can you please reflect on your experiences of interfaith dialogue. What do you feel about the efficacy of such encounters?
A: I have been involved in interfaith dialogue for about 5 years. It is not easy to evaluate the efficacy of these initiatives unless one adopts a scientific empirical approach. But based on my anecdotal evidence, simply bringing people of different faiths and backgrounds face to face on a regular basis who otherwise might not have ever met is itself powerful enough to warrant the continued existence interfaith dialogue. My experience of such dialogue has definitely helped me in better recognizing our human condition , our profound interconnectedness , the inherent dignity of each human being , the many commonalities different religions/spiritualities share, and have shattered some preconceived notions I had in my mind.
Adis Duderija can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
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