A Movement Originating Its Own Models
The Necessity Of Interfaith Dialogue
M. Fethullah GULEN- The Fountain Magazine July 2000
People are talking about peace, contentment, ecology, justice, tolerance, and dialogue. Unfortunately, the prevailing materialist worldview disturbs the balance between humanity and nature and within individuals. This harmony and peace only occurs when the material and spiritual realms are reconciled.
Religion reconciles opposites: religion—science, this world—the next world, Nature—Divine Books, material—spiritual, and spirit—body. It can contain scientific materialism, put science in its proper place, and end long-standing conflicts. The natural sciences, which should lead people to God, instead cause widespread unbelief. As this trend is strongest in the West, and because Christianity is the most influenced, Muslim—Christian dialogue is indispensable.
Interfaith dialogue seeks to realize religion’s basic oneness and unity, and the universality of belief. Religion embraces all beliefs and races in brotherhood, and exalts love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom via its Prophets.
Islam has a Prophetic Tradition that Jesus will return during the last days. For Muslims, this means that such values as love, peace, brotherhood, forgiveness, altruism, mercy, and spiritual purification will have precedence. As Jesus was sent to the Jews and all Jewish Prophets exalted these values, dialogue with the Jews must be established, as well as a closer relationship and cooperation among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
There are many common points for dialogue. Michael Wyschogrod writes that there are as many theoretical or creedal reasons for Muslims and Jews drawing closer together as there are for Jews and Christians coming together.1 Furthermore, Muslims have a good record of dealing with Jews: There has been almost no discrimination, no Holocaust, denial of basic human rights, or genocide. In fact, Jews were welcomed in times of trouble, as when the Ottoman State embraced them after their expulsion from Spain.
Muslim Difficulties in Dialogue
•In the last century alone, far more Muslims have been killed by Christians than all Christians killed by Muslims throughout history.2 Many Muslims, even educated and conscious ones, believe the West seeks to undermine Islam with ever-more subtle and sophisticated methods.
•Western colonialism is remembered. The Ottoman State collapsed due to European attacks. Foreign invasions of Muslim lands were followed with great interest in Turkey. The gradual “transformation” of Islam into an ideology of conflict and reaction or into a party ideology also made people suspicious of Islam and Muslims.
•Islam was the greatest dynamic for Muslim independence. It has been viewed as an element of separation, a harsh political ideology, and a mass ideology of independence that raised walls between itself and the West.
•Christendom’s historical portrayal of Islam as a crude distorted version of Judaism and Christianity, and the Prophet as a fraud, still rankle.
Dialogue Is a Must
For interfaith dialogue to succeed, we must forget the past, ignore polemics, and focus on gicommon points. The West’s view has changed. Consider Massignon, who says Islam is “the faith of Abraham revived with Muhammad.” He believed that Islam has a positive, almost prophetic mission in the post-Christian world, for: “Islam is the religion of faith. It is not a religion of natural faith in the God of the philosophers, but faith in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Ishmael, faith in our God. Islam is a great mystery of Divine Will.” He believed in the Qur’an’s Divine authorship and Muhammad’s Prophethood.3
The West’s perspective on our Prophet also has softened. Such Christian clerics and people of religion like Charles J. Ledit. Moubarac, Irene M. Dalmais, L. Gardet, Norman Daniel, Michel Lelong, H. Maurier, Olivier Lacombe, and Thomas Merton express warmth for Islam and the Prophet, and support dialogue.
The Second Vatican Council, which Initiated this dialogue and so cannot be ignored, shows that the Catholic Church’s attitude has changed. In the Council’s second period, Pope Paul VI said:
“On the other hand, the Catholic Church is looking farther, beyond the horizons of Christianity. It is turning towards other religions that preserve the concept and meaning of God as One, Transcendental, Creator, Ruler of Fate and Wise. Those religions worship God with sincere, devotional actions...
“The Church reaffirms to them that in modern society in order to save the meaning of religion and servanthood to God—a necessity and need of true civilization—the Church itself is going to take its place as a resolute advoate of God’s rights on man...
“In our world that has become smaller and in which relations have become closer, people expect answers from religion regarding mysterious enigmas in human nature that turn their hearts upside down. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is goodness and reward, what is sin? What is the source and point of suffering? What is the path to true happiness? What is death, what is the meaning of judgment after death and receiving the fruits of what one has done? What is the mystery surrounding the beginning and end of existence?...
“The Church encourages its children, together with believing and living as Christians, to get to know and support with precaution, compassion, dialogue and co-operation those who follow other religions and to encourage them to develop their spiritual, moral and socio-cultural values.”4
Pope John Paul II admits in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Muslims worship in the best and most careful manner. He reminds his readers that, on this point, Christians should follow Muslims.
Islam’s resistance to materialist ideologies and its important role in the modern world has amazed Western observers. E. H. Jurji’s remarks are significant: “In its self-respect, self-maintenance, and realistic zeal, in its fight for solidarity against racist and Marxist ideologies, in its vigorous denunciation of exploitation, as in the preaching of its message to a wayward, bleeding humanity, Islam faces the modern world with a peculiar sense of mission. Not confused and not torn apart by a mass of theological subtleties, nor buried beneath a heavy burden of dogma, this sense of mission draws its strength from a complete conviction of the relevance of Islam.”5
Muslims and Christians have struggled with each other for almost 14 centuries. The West remembers Islam’s military might and invasions. Current Muslim opposition to and resentment of the West benefit no one. In our global village, the West cannot wipe out Islam and Muslim armies cannot attack the West. Both sides can benefit from each other. The West has scientific, technological, economic, and military supremacy; Islam possesses an uncorrupted and living spiritual tradition rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Religion has not escaped unbelief’s onslaught. Muslims cannot limit Islam to a political ideology or an economic system, or consider the West and other religious from a historical perspective and define their attitude accordingly. Those who adopt Islam as a political ideology do so usually out of personal or national anger or hostility. We must end this practice, and base our actions on Islam as a religion. The Prophet defined a true Muslim as one from whom others are safe, as the most trust-worthy representative of universal peace.
Muslims must stop acting out of ideological or political partisanship and dressing it up in Islamic garb, or represent mere desires as ideas. This has caused the West to adopt a distorted vision of Islam. For example, American universities teach Islam as a political system in their political science or international relations departments.6 Such a perception is found among Westernized Muslims and non-Muslim Asians and Africans. Strangely enough, many groups that have put themselves forward under the banner of Islam export this image and actually strengthen it.
Islam’s Ecumenical Call for Dialogue
Fourteen centuries ago, Islam made history’s greatest ecumenical call: Say: “0 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 take not, from among ourselves lords and patrons other than God.” If they turn back, say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims (surrenders to God’s Will)” (3:64).
The Islamic statement of faith—There is no god but God—is a call not to do certain things, so that followers of revealed religions could end their separation. It represented the widest statement on which religious people could agree. If it was rejected, Muslims were to reply: “Your religion is for you; my religion is for me.”
Elmalili Hamdi Yazir, a famous Turkish Qur’an interpreter, observed: “Various consciences, nations, religions, and books can unite in one essential conscience and word of truth. Islam has taught the human realm such a wide, open, and true path of salvation and law of freedom. This is not limited to Arab or non-Arab. Religious progress is possible not by consciences being narrow and separate, but by their being universal and broad.”7
Islam gave these as gifts. Said Nursi explains this broadest scope of Islam from a contemplative observation:
“I thought about we in: You alone do we worship, and You alone
we ask for help (1:5), and my heart asked why we was used in place of I. Suddenly I discovered the virtue and secret of congregational prayer. By praying together at the Bayezid Mosque, every individual became a kind of intercessor for me. As long as I recited the Qur’an there, everyone testified for me. I took courage from its great and intense servitude to present my insufficient servitude to the Divine Court.
“Another reality unveiled itself: All of Istanbul’s mosques united and came under Bayezid’s authority. I felt they confirmed me in my cause and included me in their prayer. I saw myself in the earthly mosque, in circular rows around the Ka‘bah. I said: ‘Praise be to the Lord of the worlds. I have so many intercessors; all of us are saying the same words, and they are confirming me.’
“As this reality was unveiled, I felt I was praying before the Ka‘bah. So, I took those worshippers as witnesses and said:
‘I witness that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger.’ I entrusted this testimony of faith to
the Black Stone. While leaving this trust, another veil opened. I saw that the congregation I was in had separated into three circles.
“The first circle was a large group of believing Muslims and those who believe in God’s existence and Unity. The second circle contained all creatures performing the greatest prayer and invocation of God. Every class or species was busy with its unique invocation and litanies to God, and I was among them. The third circle contained an amazing realm that was outwardly small, but, in reality, large due to its duty and quality. From my body’s atoms to the outer senses, there was a congregation busy with servitude and gratitude.
“In short, the we in we worship pointed to these groups. I imagined our Prophet, the Qur’an’s translator and propagator, addressing humanity in Madina: 0 humanity, worship your Lord (2:2 1). Like everyone else, I heard his command in my spirit, and like me, everyone in the three groups replied: ‘You alone do we worship.’”8
The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach
As every dawn, every sunrise, and every upcoming spring signifies a new beginning and hope, so does every new century and every new millennium. In this respect, within the wheels of time over which we have no control, humanity has always sought a new spark of life, a breath as fresh as the wind of dawn, and has hoped and desired to step into light from darkness as easily as crossing a threshold.
We can only speculate as to when the original man and woman appeared on Earth, which is equated with the Heavens due to the divine art it exhibits, its ontological meaning, and its value largely coming from its chief inhabitant, that is man. According to the calendar we use today, we are at the threshold of the third millennium after the birth of Jesus, upon him be peace. However, since time revolves and advances in a helicoidal relativity, there are different measures of time in the world. For example, according to the measure of time that currently enjoys world-wide acceptance, the world is about to cross the threshold of a new thousand-year period. While according to the Jewish calendar, we are already in the second half of the sixth millennium. Within the Hindu timeframe, we are living in the Kali Yuga era, and according to the Muslim calendar, we are approaching the end of the first half of the second millennium.
We should remember, however, that this measure of time is also relative. While a 100-year period is assumed to be the measure for a century, the idea of a 60-year century, based on the life span of an average person, is also worth mentioning. From this point of view, we are already in the forth millennium after the birth of Jesus, upon him be peace, and third millennium after the hijrah, which is the starting point of the Muslim calendar. I bring up this issue due to the spiritual discomfort engendered by the terrifying auguries believed to be associated with the upcoming millennium, especially in the West.
People live in perpetual hope, and thus are children of hope. At the instant they lose their hope, they also lose their "fire" of life, no matter if their physical existence continues. Hope is directly proportional to having faith. Just as winter constitutes one-forth of a year, so the periods in a person's or a society's life corresponding to winter are also small. The gears of Divine acts revolve around such comprehensive wisdom and merciful purposes that just as the circulation of night and day builds one's hope and revivifies one's spirit and every new year comes in expectations of spring, and summer, so too the disastrous periods are short and followed by happy times in both an individual's life and a nation's history.
This circulation of the "Days of God", which is centered in Divine Wisdom, is neither a fear nor a pessimism for those with faith, insight, and genuine perceptive faculties. Rather, it is a source of continuous reflection, remembrance, and thanksgiving for those having an apprehensive heart, inner perception, and the ability to hear. Just as a day develops in the heart of night, and just as winter furnishes the womb in which spring grows, so one's life is purified, matures, and bears its expected fruits within this circulation. Also in this circulation, God-given human abilities become aptitudes and talents, sciences blossom like roses and weave technology in the workbench of time, and humanity gradually approaches its predestined end.
Having stated this general view of ours, which is neither personal nor subjective but rather an objective fact of human history, it should not be thought that we welcome either winter or winter-like events that correspond to sorrow, disease, and disaster. Despite the general fact that disease eventually increases the body's resistance, strengthens the immune system, and drives medical progress, it is pathological and harmful. It is the same with terrestrial and celestial disasters. From a theological and moral point of view, they result from our sins and oppression, which are enough to shake the Earth and the Heavens, and from engaging in deeds that have been declared forbidden and despised by law and ethics (whether religious or secular). Even though they awaken people to their mistakes and negligence, provoke developments in geology, architecture, engineering, and related safety measures; even though they elevate the demolished belongings of believers to the level of charity, and the believers themselves to the level of martyrdom, these disasters cause much destruction and harm humanity.
In the same way, we read in the Qur'an: "Unless God hampered some (of you) with some other (of you), the mosques, monasteries, and synagogues in which God is worshipped would have fallen into ruins." In other words, God would be so little known that men and women, who are inclined not to recognize anything superior to them and believe that their deeds will be questioned in the Hereafter, will completely go astray, thereby making the Earth unsuitable for human life. There is also the divine decree: " You consider something as evil although it is good for you; you also consider something else as good although it is bad for you." For example, war is permissible. Although wars based on specific principles and with the intention of improving the existing situation may have benefits, they should not be demanded, since they bring harm; they leave behind themselves ruined houses, destroyed families, and weeping orphans and widows.
Anyway, realities of life cannot be neglected, nor should they be ignored. Human beings are mirrors for God's Names and Attributes, and therefore are distinguished from the rest of creation with the honor of being responsible for making the Earth prosperous in His name. If they cannot grasp the wisdom and purposes behind any good or evil that is sent their way by their Creator, they cannot escape despair and pessimism. For them, as is seen in the Existentialist literature, life turns into a meaningless process, existence into a purposeless vacuity, nonsense into the only criteria, suicide into a meritorious act, and death becomes the only inevitable reality.
Basic nature of man
After presenting the issues that constitute the basis of this subject as an introduction, we can switch to our considerations regarding the third millennium.
Human history began with two people who constituted the essence of humanity and complemented each other. People lived a tranquil life during this time of the original mother and father and the families that descended from them. They were a united society that had the same views and shared the same environment and lives. From that day on, the essence of humanity has remained unchanged, and it will remain so. The realities surrounding their lives, their physical structure, main characteristics, basic needs, place and time of birth and death, selection of parents and physique, innate characteristics, as well as the surrounding natural environment, surrounding him have not changed. All of these require some essential and vital invariable realities and values. Thus, the development and alteration of life's secondary realities should be based on the axis of these primary realities and values, so that life will continue as a worldly paradise under the shadow of Heaven.
We mentioned above some issues that seem to be harmful and unpleasant. Similarly, there are human traits that seem to be evil at first glance, such as hatred, jealousy, enmity, the desire to dominate others, greed, rage, and egoism. A human being has also other innate drives and needs that allow the continuation of his or her worldly life, such as the need to eat and drink and the drives of lust and anger. All human drives, needs and desires should be guided and trained in the direction of the eternal, universal, and invariable values that address the fundamental aspects of humanity. In this respect, the need to eat and drink, and the desire associated with lust and rage, can be tamed and transformed into means of absolute or relative good. Likewise, egoism and hatred can become sources of fine attributes and goodness. Jealousy and rivalry can be transformed into competition in charitable and good deeds. The feeling of enmity can be transformed into enmity against Satan, the greatest enemy of mankind, and against the feeling of enmity itself and hatred. Greed and rage into a drive which will force one to perform good deeds without tiredness. Egoism can point out the evil aspects of the carnal soul (nafs), thereby seeking to train and purify the soul by not excusing its evil actions.
As it is seen, all negative feelings can be transformed into sources of good by training and struggle. This is how one reaches the level of "the best of Creation," by traveling the way of transformation from a potential human being to a real and perfected human being, to becoming the best symbol, model, and personal representative of creation and existence.
Despite this fact, the realities of human life do not always follow these guidelines. The negative feelings and attributes often defeat people, pulling them under their domination to such an extent that even the religions that guide people to goodness and kindness are abused, as well as the feelings and attributes that are sources of absolute good. Human life, at the level of the individual and of humanity as a whole, is merely the summation of internal, personal struggles and their external manifestations. These tides make the personal world of the individual, society, and history an arena of battle, struggle, war, oppression, and tyranny. As a result, it is usually human beings themselves who suffer the consequences.
Men and women always receive the fruits of their deeds. In the first period of its history, humanity lived a happy life as a single society whose members shared their joys and sorrows. But, later on they bound their necks and feet with a rusty yoke composed of chains of oppression as a result of jealousy, greed, and coveting other's rights and properties. The consequence was Cain's murder of Abel. As a result of this, humanity entered the path of disunity. Despite the millenniums coming one after the other like days, seasons and years, this "cycle" still continues.
The second millennium
The second millennium started with the Crusades and then the Mongol invasions of the Muslim world, which was like the heart of the Earth and history at that time. Despite the wars and destruction, and despite the crimes committed sometimes in the name of religion and sometimes in the name of economic, political and military supremacy, this millennium has seen the apex of the East's civilizations, based on spirituality, metaphysical, universal and eternal values, and the West's civilizations, based on the physical sciences. Many significant geographical discoveries and scientific inventions have occurred.
However, the East's and West's civilizations existed separated from each other. This separation, which should not have occurred, was based on the former's retiring from the intellect and science, while the latter retired from spirituality, metaphysics, and eternal and invariable values. As a result, the last centuries of this millennium have witnessed disasters that are hard to believe. Due to humanity's growing arrogance and egoism, arising from its accomplishments, men and women have had to live through worldwide colonialism, immense massacres, revolutions that cost millions of lives, unimaginably bloody and destructive wars, racial discrimination, immense social and economic injustice, and iron curtains built by regimes whose ideology and philosophy sought to deny the essence, freedom, merit, and honor of humanity. It is partly because of this and partly because of some auguries from the Bible that many people in the West fear that the world will again be soaked by floods of blood, pus, and destruction. They are quite pessimistic and worried about the new millennium.
Our expectations with respect to the new millennium
Modern means of communication and transportation have transformed the world into a large, global village. So, those who expect that any radical changes in a country will be determined by that country alone and remain limited to it, are unaware of current realities. This time is a period of interactive relations. Nations and peoples are more in need of and dependent on each other, which causes closeness in mutual relations.
This network of relations, which has surpassed the period of brute colonialism and exists on the basis of mutual interest, provides some benefits to the weaker side. Moreover, owing to the advances in technology, especially digital electronic technology, the acquisition and exchange of information grows gradually. As a result, the individual comes to the fore, making it inevitable that democratic governments that respect personal rights will replace oppressive regimes.
As each individual is like a species with respect to other species, individual rights cannot be sacrificed for society, and social rights should depend on individual rights. This is why the basic human rights and freedoms found in the revealed religions, came to be considered by a war-weary West. They will enjoy priority in all relations. At the head of these rights is the right to life, which is granted and can solely be taken by God. To accentuate the importance of this right in Islam, a basic Qur'anic principle is that: "If one person kills another unjustly, it is the same as if he or she had killed all of humanity; if one saves another, it is the same as if he or she has saved all of humanity."
Other rights are the freedom of religion and belief, thought and expression; the right to own property and the sanctity of one's home; to marry and have children; to communication and travel; and the right to and freedom of education. The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are based on these and other rights, all of which are accepted by modern legal systems, such as the protection of life, religion, property, reproduction, and intellect, as well as equality of people based on the fact that all people are human beings, and the rejection of all racial, color, and linguistic discriminations. All of these will be—and should be—indispensable essentials in the new millennium.
I believe and hope that the world of the new millennium will be a happier, more just, and more compassionate place, contrary to the fears of some people. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all come from the same root, have almost the same essentials, and are nourished from the same source. Although they have lived as rival religions for centuries, the common points between them and their shared responsibility to build a happy world for all of the creatures of God, make interfaith dialogue among them necessary. This dialogue has now expanded to include the religions of Asia and other areas. The results have been positive.
As mentioned above, this dialogue will develop as a necessary process, and the followers of all religions will find ways to get closer and assist each other.
Previous generations witnessed a bitter struggle that should never have taken place: science versus religion. This conflict gave rise to atheism and materialism which influenced Christianity more than other religions. Whereas, science cannot contradict religion, for its purpose is to understand nature and man, which are each a composition of the manifestations of God's Attributes of Will and Power. Religion has its source in the Divine Attribute of Speech, that was manifested in the course of human history as Divine Scriptures such as the Qur'an, the Gospels, the Torah and others. Thanks to the efforts of both Christian and Muslim theologians and scientists, it seems that the few-century long religion-science conflict will come to an end, or at least its absurdity will be acknowledged.
The end of this conflict and a new style of education that will fuse religious and scientific knowledge together with morality and spirituality, produce genuinely enlightened people with hearts illumined by religious sciences and spirituality, minds illuminated with positive sciences, characterized by all kinds of humane merits and morale values, and cognizant of the socio-economic and political conditions of their time. Our old world will experience an excellent "spring-time" before its demise. This spring-time will see the gap between rich and poor narrow; the world's riches distributed most justly according to one's work, capital, and needs; the absence of discrimination based on race, color, language, and world-view; and basic human rights and freedoms are protected. Individuals will come to the fore and, learning how to realize their potential, will ascend on the way to becoming "the most elevated human" with the wings of love, knowledge, and belief.
In this new "spring-time," when scientific and technological progress is taken into consideration, people will understand that the current level of science and technology resembles the stage when an infant is learning how to crawl. Humanity will organize trips into space as if traveling to another country. Travelers on the way to God, those self-immolators of love who have no time for hostility, will carry the inspirations in their spirits to other worlds. Yes, this spring-time will rise on the foundations of love, compassion, mercy, dialogue, acceptance of others, mutual respect, justice, and rights. It will be a time in which humanity will discover its real essence. Goodness and kindness, righteousness and virtue will form the basic essence of the world. No matter what happens, the world will come to this track sooner or later. Nobody can prevent this.
We pray and beg the Infinitely Compassionate One not to let our hopes and expectations come to nothing.
The Parliament of the World's Religions, Capetown of the Rep. of S. Africa, 12.01.1999