Doctrines >Dialogue with the people of the Book  (2)


Dialogue with the people of the Book (2)

part (1) < > part (3)

The Jews in confrontation with Islam

That treaty would have endured and created the right conditions for religious tolerance and peace, had it not been for the Jews’ unwillingness to contribute to cementing that climate, in that they were bent on standing against the new religion and its Prophet .

Quoting the Prophetic Biography of Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq has this to say:

Thus, the rabbis harboured enmity to the Messenger of God (p.) out of transgression, grudge, and envy for that which God has favoured the Arab with, i.e. by sending them a Prophet from among themselves. Some men of the tribes of Aws and Khazraj, who were still clinging to the tradition of their forefathers, i.e. idol worship, joined the Jews in plotting against the Prophet (p.). Although those polytheists ostensibly embraced Islam when they saw it spread far and wide, yet in their heart of hearts they did not; they were hypocrites. Their leanings were with the Jews in their rejection of Islam’s Message and branding the Prophet a liar. The rabbis did their best to confuse the issues and turn truths into falsehoods by arguing with the Prophet, so much so that much of the Qur’anic revelations at that period were talking about the rabbis and their corrupt ways; very little of the Qur’an during the same period, which was, in the main, dealing with matters of what was permissible and what was not, was revealed.3

It is evidently clear that the Jews initiated the argument, in an effort to stir up trouble by raising tendentious questions about the Message of Islam and its Messenger (p.). These were diversionary tactics designed to distract the Prophet from pursuing the main thrust of his noble mission, i.e. in making the new religion take root in society. The rabbis aimed also to distract Muslims from concentrating on their new life under Islam, through the misgivings and worries they sowed in the Muslims’ hearts and minds, and the divisions and discord they sought to spread among their ranks.

How did the Prophet (p.) respond to this onslaught? Did he declare war against them? Not at all. The Prophet (p.) did not want to make that skirmish the start of a full-blown war. Instead he was determined to lay down the guidelines Muslims should adhere to in their debate with the People of the Book, be they Jews or others.

Islam plans for the ideological debate with the People of the Book

In his effort to activate interfaith dialogue, the Prophet (p.) was resolute in creating the right conditions for it. He wanted to steer the debate away from highly charged climates, in order to make it conducive to achieving the required goal: either total agreement between the parties of the debate, or consensus on shared positions, based on clarity of vision on what each party was up to.

Islam has been practical and realistic in this regard. It recognizes that the concept of peaceful co-existence between religions, whose banner it has hoisted high, should not necessarily mean recognition that the arena is free from the causes of struggle which may lurch from time to time. It also recognizes that these factors should not prevent Islam from going about its mission in spreading its message, in the same way irreligious ideologies propagate their strands of thought, let alone other religions.

In this light, it is necessary to lay down the basis, both in concept and methodology, on which the struggle should be shaped. This is with a view to insulating the climate of co-existence from the rainy days of struggle, which may beat the drums of war or lead to it. Thus, the main features that set the path for a rational and fruitful debate began to appear.

As for the concept, the main issue was to start from a common ground, which could strengthen co-existence and explore more shared aspirations, or at least the possibility of discovering new instances of meeting of minds.

Concerning the methodology, it was seeking the best, the most superior, and the most pleasant of the language of dialogue, its dynamism and general ambience. Using harsh words should not be tolerated, so long as the debate can be conducted calmly; nor is it advisable to resort to hysterical methods, when the alternative should be an informed debate conducted in a friendly atmosphere.

The aim behind such an approach is to provoke the minds of others and make them recognize that Islam respects their thought and feelings, and that it does not attempt to treat them flippantly. What it does is to confront others by begging answers to the questions it poses and inquiries it raises. The provided answers are the starting point of a realistic, free and calm debate, not an interrogation session that may encroach upon man’s dignity and pride. Islam does not want this to happen, because it is in search of belief that is arrived at through personal conviction. Both of these can only be found in conditions where freedom and tranquillity can prevail.

Main thrust of the approach

And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)”. (29: 46)

Say ye: “We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to God (in Islam)”. (2: 136)

Thus, it has laid down the foundation for dialogue with the People of the Book by that which is the best, barring the unjust among them because their aim is not a desire to get to know the truth. Rather, they seek to transgress, make trouble and do mischief to the best of their ability, and circumstances permitting. It is inevitable, therefore, that they are dealt with by that which would prevent them from perpetrating injustice and aggression; there can be no dialogue with them whatsoever.

The Qur’an did not theoretically elaborate on this approach to dialogue. It has attempted to present the practical side of it by calling it “that which is the best”, so that we may uphold it. The approach is a blend of the methodology and the concept on which belief in Islam is based; a faith that is a bridge between religions. It is so because it does not have any reservations about respecting the sanctity in which other religions hold their prophets, the doctrines they believe in and the laws they uphold. Islam believes in all the prophets (a.s.) that were sent before Prophet Mohammad (p.). It believes in all the Books that were revealed by God to the other prophets in the same way it holds sacred the Book that was revealed to Mohammad. The bedrock of its belief is monotheism, which it shares with other monotheistic religions. In the beginning and in the end, Islam’s belief is submission to the Almighty in whatever shape or position it may take in the context of the truth and peace.

This approach may suggest that by believing in what others hold sacred, in the same way that Muslims hold what they believe in sacred, Islam does not recognize their existence, insomuch as its position is not compromised. This may be attributed to paying attention to niceties and in seeking common ground for coming together at the expense of real positions. On the contrary, it is in keeping with the realities of Islam; this reality is capable of giving all parties to dialogue the feeling of ideological and spiritual affinity. It may also reassure them that meeting with Islam would not take them away from their original positions as a matter of principle.

The approach provides an insurance policy against isolationism

It is obvious that as Islamic activists, we are in need of this approach to dialogue in many spheres. It is always desirable that we make our start from the positions that bring us together with the opposite side rather than those which keep us apart. This is capable of guiding our steps to that common ground. This is applicable to doctrinal matters as well as to other issues, be they of life in general or those of a personal nature.

Dialogue conducted in this manner is capable of keeping Muslim activists, calling for the way of God, away from falling into the trap of social and political isolationism, which may prove a hindrance to advancing their point of view. As is apparent from the aforesaid Quranic verses, the activists may make their starting point in dialogue by discussing matters of common interest, before delving into the details of doctrine and life in general. This could be a prelude to winning peoples’ hearts and minds, and then moving from a solid base to wider audiences. Others should not be given the chance to exploit the indulgence of Muslim activists in details about the faith as a springboard to accusing them of being far removed from the real issues, be they social, economic, or political, that concern the people most.

The advantage of addressing the real issues is there to see. The achievements political groups and parties make from espousing slogans, which are receptive to peoples’ aspirations and issues, are all-apparent. However, the Islamic movement, in general, seems to be timid, sitting on the fence and letting others pass it by, for abiding by the fundamental barriers, which set it aside from them. That is, without grasping the nettle in matters of common interest. Thus, the Islamic movement has been left at the beginning of the road, almost standing still, alongside other groups, whose feet became numb from the length of standing. They were left in a limbo due to the belief that they should forbear and wait aimlessly without even attempting to see whether there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Nevertheless, we do not see why we cannot join the convoy, but without losing our distinct Islamic character, exactly in the same way that others can come together without losing their identities. This, we believe, does not go contrary to Islamic injunctions, which recognize that finding common denominators with others is a good base to achieving much needed freedom of movement in the struggle with others and for their own sake. We need not go further than examining the following Quranic verses to prove the legitimacy of this approach insofar as the nature of the notion and methodology of dialogue are concerned. Yet, the trouble with many of us is that we seem to behave in a way that may suggest that we believe in certain parts of the Book and disbelieve in others when it comes to dealing with the unbelievers. We seem to lean heavily on those Quranic verses that call for showing toughness with them, rather than those that call for espousing leniency and tolerance. We do not appear to stand back and try to differentiate between those verses in the light of any given circumstance.

Building on positions of agreement

Say: “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.” If then they turn back, say ye: “Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to God’s Will).” Shiites, and calls for cooperation with the Sunnis and other groups to confront arrogant plots.

(3: 64)

This Quranic verse agrees with the previous one (2: 136) in discussing fundamental issues of common interest to all religions. That is, pure monotheism, which is neither tempered with open polytheism or idol-worship, nor is it a latent polytheism that manifests itself in personality cult worship, taking them for lords to the exclusion of God:

They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords beside Allah. And (they take as their Lord) Christ, the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One God: There is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him). (9: 31)

This approach to dialogue starts from agreeing, in general terms, the topic of debate without going into the details, with a view to circumventing stirring up sensitivities with regard to certain practices. Should agreement be reached on the terms of reference, the way would then be open to examine the details directly.

The importance of this approach lies in the possibilities that the objections raised could have stemmed from ignorance of the main thrust of the faith, or be due to being completely overtaken by the reality of how it is being practised, without being able to tell the difference between ideology and practice. It is, therefore, desirable that dialogue should concentrate on the general idea in a thought-provoking exercise.

This is what the Holy Qur’an is trying to underscore as regards examining the details. It explains beyond any doubt that, according to the verses above, they have deviated widely from what they truly believe in, as is evident from verse 9: 31, “They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords beside Allah. And (they take as their Lord) Christ, the son of Mary.” That is, in spite of the difference that they assert exists between the rabbis and monks on the one hand, and Jesus Christ (a.s.) on the other. In other words, what their position demonstrates is pure divergence from the line of monotheism, which the Qur’an has put forward as a basis for mutual consensus between religions, and that there is not much of a difference between the two positions.

Why did the Qur’an target the rabbis and monks?

One may pose the question as to why the Qur’an appears to direct the dialogue to the relationship between them (Jews and Christians) and their rabbis and priests, in spite of the fact that this relationship had nothing to do with doctrinal matters. There is no evidence of their claiming that they [rabbis and priests] are gods. Rather, the issue seems to be related to sheer submission to rabbis and priests, without necessarily believing that they are gods.

However, the answer is perhaps due to their power in influencing people’s lives and the way they think, and their bitter and determined stand against Islam’s Message. They did their best to obstruct people from joining the way of God, which was opened up by the new religion, for they were apprehensive that they might lose their privileged positions. Thus, they were bent on making mischief among, and misleading, people by falsifying and tampering with the revealed Books they were supposed to be the guardians over. Those fabrications contributed to damaging any chance of religions coming closer and finding a common ground.

The concept that the Qur’an has advanced is in keeping with the fact that religions have a common denominator, in that no person should have any concession over the rest, irrespective of their rank or worth. No one should have the right of setting themselves up as rivals to God insofar as total submission is concerned. No mortals, including the prophets (a.s.), possess any of God’s attributes, not even an iota thereof. The prophets’ job was to deliver the Message entrusted to them by God, and to call on people to submit to Him. Should there be any divine instruction to obey the prophets, it was based, as we understand it, on total submission to God, which is the moral fibre of, and the driving force behind, their missions.

The Holy Qur’an has clarified this situation in many verses. It has painted a bleak picture for rabbis and priests, especially the sinister work they were intent on carrying out against the Scripture they were supposed to uphold as sacred:

O ye who believe! There are indeed many among the priests and anchorites, who in Falsehood devour the substance of men and hinder (them) from the way of God. And there are those who bury gold and silver and spend it not in the way of God: announce unto them a most grievous penalty. On the Day when heat will be produced out of that (wealth) in the fire of Hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs, their flanks, and their backs. “This is the (treasure) which ye buried for yourselves: taste ye, then, the (treasures) ye buried!” (9: 34–35)

In rejecting the worship of personality cult, to the exclusion of God, the Qur’an has this to say:

It is not (possible) that a man, to whom is given the Book, and Wisdom, and the prophetic office, should say to people: “Be ye my worshippers rather than God’s”: on the contrary (He would say) “Be ye worshippers of Him Who is truly the Cherisher of all: For ye have taught the Book and ye have studied it earnestly.” Nor would he instruct you to take angels and prophets for Lords and patrons. What! Would he bid you to unbelief after ye have bowed your will (To God in Islam)? (3: 79–80)