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Is Interfaith Dialogue forbidden by Islam?

Interfaith dialogue or discourse has now become a part of religious work at least in Europe and Americas.

Traditional Muslims who at one time opposed any dialogue with non-Muslims are now visible in conferences and seminars focusing on pluralism and religious harmony. So is the situation with many Christian and Jewish groups who never favored the idea of an interfaith dialogue are not its parts.

However, there are still many in the Muslim and Christian and Jewish communities, especially in the US and Europe who reject it. Obviously, Christian and Jews have their own religious reasons for their stand but among Muslims who reject it argue that the Quran and Sunnah do not permit Muslims to enter into any meaningful dialogue with non-Muslims including those who are described in the Quran as people of the book.

Those who reject the interfaith dialogue say that the Quran specifically addresses the issue of dialogue and friendship with Christians and Jews and strongly prohibits Muslims from pursuing that.

“O you, who have attained to faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies of one another and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers. 5:51”

Additionally, they quote some of the statements that a few earlier Muslim scholars had attributed to Prophet Muhammad as evidence of their rejection of interfaith dialogue. Some of these statements are reproduced here.

Adiy bin Hatim narrated that the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “The Jews are those who Allah is angry with, and the Christians have strayed.” (Tirmidhi Vol 5, Book 33 and hadith 3954)

Abu Hurairah narrated: that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Do not precede the Jews and the Christians with the Salam. And if one of you meets them in the path, then force them to its narrow portion.” (Tirmidhi, Vol 5, Book 40, hadith 2700)

There are narrations on this subject from Ibn 'Umar, Anas, and Abu Basrah Al-Ghifari the Companion of the Prophet (ﷺ). One of the early Muslim scholars said Abu 'Eisa said that “This Hadith is Hasan Sahih. And regarding the meaning of this Hadith: “Do not precede the Jews and the Christians": Some of the people of knowledge said that it only means that it is disliked because it would be honoring them, and the Muslims were ordered to humiliate them. For this reason, when one of them is met on the path, then the path is not yielded for him, because doing so would amount to honoring them.”

They also narrate the following statement to justify their stand Abu Burda reported on the authority of his father that Allah's Apostle (ﷺ) said: “”No Muslim would die but Allah would admit in his stead a Jew or a Christian in Hell-Fire. 'Umar b. Abd al-'Aziz took an oath: By One besides Whom there is no god but He, thrice that his father had narrated that to him from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ).

Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari also reported a similar hadith that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will deliver to every Muslim, a Jew or a Christian and say: 'This is your ransom from Hell-fire.”

Obviously, no one can deny that these statements are not in the Quran or in the books of ahadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet). They are there and they have impacted the thinking of many Muslims. But do they really convey the essence of the message of Islam? Does the Quran really prevent Muslims from befriending Jews and Christians and people of other faiths? And does the Prophet really want Muslims to humiliate Jews and Christians? And will God send a Christian and a Jew to hellfire to free one Muslim sinner? If the answer is affirmative, than the Muslim claim that God is all merciful, and his messenger was sent as mercy to humankind and his message is for restoring the dignity of humanity is just a propaganda and Islam is yet another religion that promotes hatred and anger against others.

The reality is that the verses of the Quran were interpreted in a specific context where even the most pious scholars could not see the divine grace and mercy beyond their own community. The Quran describes itself a book for guidance and comfort to humanity. It invites its adherents to work for the unity of humanity not for its division. It exhorts its believers to show respect to fellow human beings regardless of their behavior or attitude.

The Quran specifically reminds the believers that every human being deserves a dignified existence. “NOW, INDEED, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favored them far above most of Our creation: “ 17:70

The Quran acknowledges that good people who have their rewards with their Sustainer are found in all religions.

“Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians -all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” 2:62
“for, verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians - all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds - no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” 5:69
“Verily, as for those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], and those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Magians, [on the one hand,] and those who are bent on ascribing divinity to aught but God, [on the other,] verily, God will decide between them on Resurrection Day: for, behold, God is witness unto everything.” 22:17

How is it possible that the Quran would ask believers not to befriend those who are described decent by the divine himself? In this verse, the Quran specifically referred to power elite at the time of the Prophet from among Christians, Jews and polytheists who were bent on distorting the divine guidance to serve their political and financial interests. The Quran warned the believers that such people cannot be the allies of the truth because they can compromise the truth for their gains. Did the Quran say that all Jews and all Christians until the end of the time would remain the enemy of Muslims? This is neither proved by history nor by any logic.

The Prophet understood the context of the divine message and that led him to send the early Muslims to Ethiopia to seek refuge in a Christian land under a Christian king.

Such was the respect for this Christian ruler, that the Prophet is said to have observed the funeral prayer when the news of his death reach him. Even though many Muslim scholars have tried to suggest that Negus had secretly converted to Islam, an assertion that has no foundation in any historical record of the time. It is also reported that the Ethiopian King was the one who brought the Prophet and Umma Habiba in matrimonial relations where Umma Habiba;s husband who had accepted Christianity died.

How is it possible that God would ask Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews when the Quran clearly permits Muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women? Who could be a better friend than a wife?

Those who quote the ahadith saying that Muslims should not greet Jews and Christians, and should squeeze them on the road and humiliate them ignore the reality that the Prophet sent about 379 letters to non-Muslims and they all began with greetings to them. The idea that Jews and Christian pedestrians should be squeezed does not make any sense because when the Prophet saw a Jewish funeral passing by, he stood in its honor. Also when some of his companions were furious at a non-Muslim for mistreating the Prophet, he admonished them to be polite. There are several examples to suggest that the Prophet paved the way for non-Muslims. It is obvious, that the statements attributed to the prophet are not accurate and does not reflect his personality or the Quranic message.

They also ignore the hadith that reminds Muslims of the origin of the fasting on the tenth of Muharram as was the practice of Jews and Christians of Medina.

As far as the hadith that says that God would send a Jews and Christian to hellfire to save one Muslim from it is nothing but making a mockery of justice and decency. The Prophet must never have said it even if all the chains are suggesting accuracy because this statement conflicts the Quran and the character of the Prophet.

The Quran clearly states that no one will carry the burden of the other. Say: "Am I, then, to seek a sustainer other than God, when He is the Sustainer of all things?" And whatever [wrong] any human being commits rests upon him alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another's burden. And, in time, unto your Sustainer you all must return: and then He will make you. [truly] understand all that on which you were wont to differ. - 6:164. The Prophet would never say anything that goes against the Quran. The idea that for the sins of Muslims, Christians and Jews will be consigned to hellfire is blasphemy against God.

Neither the Prophet nor the Quran prevents Muslims from developing cordial relations with people regardless of their faith. The Quran warns people to avoid those who use people for their financial and political gains. Such people can be found in all religions and all communities.

Interfaith dialogue gives an opportunity to every religious community to learn the truth about religions from those who claim to represent it. It does not seek conversion. It seeks better understanding and those Muslims who misuse the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet in fact deny the verse of the Quran that says: O human beings! 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. - 49:13

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