Friday, March 6, 2009

Where Art Thou, Islam: From Interfaith Dialogues To Sufism (Part 1)


Over the last seven years, interfaith dialogues across nations have mushroomed with great speed, and perhaps in great haste. Conceivably the main reason for this lies not in an ideological commitment to religious diversity, tolerance or acceptance, but in an attempt to deal with practical problems raised primarily by the events of September 11, 2001. Whilst this is not a paper on the mechanics of interfaith dialogue, I will attempt to trace a brief genealogy of inter-religious relationships within a specific Islamic historical perspective before examining its selected application to our modern context.

However, a more interesting affect and articulation also developed on the side: never before have elements of Sufism been at the forefront in shaping the study of Islam – and popular public acceptance (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) attest to this. Sufism thus becomes the representative “Islam”, not only because taking position with the other spectrum (that being of terrorism) is untenable, but also because suspiciously, it communicates and is understood most effectively with grounded concepts within the language of Christianity. Inevitably, this development resulted in a certain construct of what constitutes Islam, and who Muslims are, in the public sphere. My paper will examine a fundamental problem of who and what defines Islam, and why Muslims are now at a confusing crossroad. In doing so, I will examine the position from 4 different perspectives: historical, theological, translations of language, and from the viewpoint of power relationships. The length expected of this presentation will not allow me to examine all these aspects in detail. It does, however, attempt to provide a brief framework.

The Search For Dialogues

September 11, 2001 is a major turning point in the discursive development of the social sciences. The first knee-jerk response to that fateful event was the need to “reach out” in educating the people of the appropriate form of their religious beliefs (particularly of Islam) and in bridging the gap of understanding between those various beliefs. Interfaith dialogues were organized in the hope of achieving these aims and enhancing the common cause of our existence. Theoretically, it brings people of different religious faiths together for conversations. These conversations can take an array of forms and possess a variety of goals and formats – addressing audiences at various levels – the technical aspects of which are beyond the scope of this paper.

In tracing any particular genealogy, we are looking at history from the active voice: everywhere, local people are “making their own history,” “contesting” it, “borrowing” meanings and “reconstructing” their own cultural existence. This notion of history emphasizes not only the unceasing work of human creators but also the unstable and hybrid character of their creation (Asad 1993). This is because the study of human social sciences deals with people in dynamic situations which are continuously developing. The issue is not whether a local and particular set of circumstances is pure or derivative, unitary or contested – it is about examining the mode of human agency which produced an embodied affect of the events surrounding them (Asad 1993). It is with this view that I found it important for me to sketch a brief genealogy of interfaith dialogue from the viewpoint of Islamic history.

History of Dialogues in Islam

Islam began as a minority tradition in a non-Muslim setting and would not have developed had it not been for dialogues. I will illustrate this with two distinct examples – one from an event during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad and another example where this notion was carried through by his caliph.

Most people are familiar with the emigration of Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 CE. However, there was an earlier emigration to Abyssinia which underscored the value of interfaith dialogue to Prophet Muhammad. As people began to accept Islam in Mecca, they were met with increased opposition and some even turned to physical persecutions. Prophet Muhammad gathered a group of those most vulnerable, and instructed them to go across the Red Sea to Abyssinia, a Christian country ruled by a Christian king. The king of Abyssinia welcomed the Muslim refugees from Makkah into his kingdom. He gave them sanctuary, and they enjoyed peace, security and freedom of worship under his aegis. The ruler of Mecca sent endless convoys seeking for their extradition – with many famous theological debates recorded in history books – the contents itself do not form the core argument of this paper. Suffice to note that there were many of such dialogues occurring between the Muslims and the convoys from Mecca, with the Christian king acting as a judge denying the requests for extradition. The Muslim emigrants stayed in Abyssinia under the king’s protection until they rejoined the larger Muslim community in Medina (Guillaume 2002, Rosenthal 2006).

Prophet Muhammad’s act represented for the first time, the engagement of Muslims with Christians as a community through dialogues – who were viewed as a people that would protect members of the nascent Muslim community. This is an early example in the history of Islam of the importance of pluralism and interfaith dialogue.

The spirit of dialogue and understanding was carried through Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second successor to Prophet Muhammad, who ruled the Muslim community from 634 CE to 644 CE. In a contrasting historical and political perspective to the example provided earlier, the Muslims arrived at Jerusalem in 638 CE. Far from being a ruthless imperial conqueror, Caliph ‘Umar actually walked into Jerusalem instead of riding his camel because it was his servant’s turn to ride the camel that they shared. While in the city, Caliph ‘Umar was given a tour of the existing religious sites by the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem. As the time approached for prayer, Caliph ‘Umar asked for a place where he might offer his prayers and was offered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the most important of Christian sites. He refused it, as he knew that wherever he (being the first Muslim ruler in Jerusalem) was to offer his prayers, his followers would build a mosque over it, and would not consent to that place be inside an important location to Christians. Instead, he prayed on the steps outside the church. True enough, one can find the Mosque of ‘Umar situated there today – commemorating his prayers on that day. Clearly, for ‘Umar, respect was due to Christians and their places of worship.

These two examples portray the respect that Islam has for other faiths, in this particular example, Christianity, and the realization that people need to co-exist peacefully. There have been ongoing conversations between them since Islamic traditions began. In fact, it may be safe to say that Islam existed and grew due to such conversations. When Prophet Muhammad received revelations from God, he had to engage in dialogues with those who are opposed to his ministry. It may be examined in another paper that the objective then was more missionary than is now, but the concept of dialogue was put into place then. Even when the Islamic political empire expanded and the hold of power were reversed, those very same principles were practiced by his successors, as related in the story of Caliph ‘Umar above.

Turning to a primary text and examining it from a theological perspective, the Qur’an is clear of the sole criteria which distinguish a human being from another. It states: “O humanity! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know each other. Truly, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most God-conscious of you. Truly, God is Knowing, Aware” (Qur’an 49:13). There are four main points in this verse. First, the passage is addressed to all of humanity instead of limiting it just to Muslims. Second, the creation of humanity into distinct groups is God’s intentional design and is a positive value. Third, it encourages people to transcend their differences and learn from each other as a result of that difference. Finally, the best of people are those who are aware and are conscious of God.

From that theological perspective, it is interesting to note that the creation of this diverse world was an intended divine plan. Looking at it from this way, there is no way therefore that man could work towards making one the same as another, whether it be in matters of faith, culture or politics. In my view, the existence of such difference is for men to learn more of himself, of others, for him to build on that relationship and in the process, to discover the beauty of God’s creation through those differences.

1 comment:

blue said...

Salam Ustaz

Masya allah. I have yet to read all of it but just reading part one, I was blown away...

No wonder my hubby always say that you are an intellectual Ustaz.