Necessity of Dialogue for Peace
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan for New Age Islam
17 April, 2015
(Maulana Wahiduddin Khan's Interaction with a Group of Catholic Priests and Nuns, New Delhi)
Q: When did you begin your mission, and what is it about?
A: It’s been a very long journey. It started many years ago, but it began in an active sense in 1967, when I became the editor of the Urdu weekly Al-Jamiat. Then, in 1970, I set up the Islamic Centre in New Delhi, and launched the Urdu monthly Al-Risala in 1976. In 2001, I set up the Centre for Peace and Spirituality.
This, in brief, is a description of my organizational activities.
My mission is basically a dawah mission. Dawah means ‘invitation’, and this mission seeks to invite people to God. Through this mission, we seek to convey the word of God to people everywhere.
At the same time, I am also interested in working for peace. Without peace, you can’t engage in positive or constructive work. If you want to do Dawah work, if you want to promote spirituality, you need peace. So, we give great stress on working for peace, because our purpose is Dawah, and Dawah is not possible without peace. Dawah and peace are interlinked. I am thus interested in promoting both Dawah and peace.
Q: There’s much talk today about interfaith dialogue. It seems to be a relatively new thing. Why do you think people are talking about it today?
A: It isn’t that dialogue between followers of different faiths did not take place earlier. Yet, maybe not much of it took place in the formal sense, because for dialogue you need communications to relate, to dialogue, with others, and in the past, means of communication were limited. Today, communications are highly advanced, and so not only is dialogue much more possible but it is also a pressing need.
I think interaction and intellectual exchange between people of different faiths is very important. We are really blessed to find ourselves in a period of history where the possibilities of such exchange and interaction abound. These possibilities were very limited in earlier times, and so we are truly fortunate.
Q: What are your views on coexistence, peace, tolerance and the ethics of dialogue?
A: These values are universal, and are all very good. Without peace, without peaceful coexistence and tolerance, you can’t do anything positive. Islam stresses these values.
Q: What is the Islamic approach to coexistence, to dialogue between people of different faiths?
A: The Quran says as-sulh khair, which means ‘reconciliation is best’. According to Islam, our choice should be peace, rather than confrontation. This is reflected very clearly in the teachings of the Sufis. The Sufis believed in what is called sulh-e kul or peace with all.
Peace with all is a fundamental Islamic teaching.
This is because Dawah is a central concern of Islam. Dawah cannot be effectively engaged in without peace, without peaceful interaction with others. Islam is a religion of mission. It has a mission—which is to convey the word of God everywhere. This was the Prophet’s mission. It is the duty of believers in Islam to explain to people the Creation Plan of God, to convey to them God’s message to humanity.
This is our mission. This mission requires peace. It also requires interaction and dialogue with others.
Q: What do you think Muslims might gain from such dialogue?
A: As I said, dialogue is necessary for dawah, and dawah is a basic duty and mission of followers of Islam. I do not think there is any minus point in dialogue at all, provided it is serious discussion and intellectual exchange, not polemics or debate. When you dialogue and interact with others, you exchange thoughts and views. If the other party accepts your position or views, you gain a companion. And if the other party does not accept your view, if it is not convinced about it, at least you gain valuable experience in terms of intellectual exchange.
So, either way, whether or not the other party veers round to accepting your views, you stand to gain from dialogue and interaction.
Peaceful dialogue, then, is very good and useful in all circumstances. I have personally experienced that interaction and dialogue between people of different faith backgrounds are always useful for Muslims (and for others, too)—in terms of intellectual development or in terms of conveying the message of Islam to others.
There’s an important point I need to add here. I have participated in several interfaith dialogue initiatives, in India and abroad. But according to my experience, these efforts were not very beneficial. It was not because dialogue is itself not beneficial. Dialogue is always good. The reason that these dialogue initiatives were not very beneficial is that I think Muslims are not very familiar with the process of dialogue. Muslims know only debate, not dialogue. And so, I found that while the other parties were sincerely engaged in trying to promote dialogue, the Muslims who were present were not sincere about it, because they only knew how to debate. Always, I have noticed, Muslims use the language of debate. In this regard, I would say that there is an urgent need to bring about reform in Muslim thinking. We have to convince Muslims to drop the debate method and opt for scientific, peaceful, meaningful and positive dialogue.
But even then I am hopeful, because at least through such dialogue initiatives that Muslims may presently be engaged in, they may gain some useful and valuable experiences. Although Muslims are not very competent to engage in dialogue, every Muslim who has the good fortune of being able to participate in a dialogue will be exposed to some new learning experiences, which may help him reform himself, his thinking, attitude to others, and his behaviour.
So, I am greatly in favour of interfaith dialogue, and think that it is a wonderful thing for Muslims, as well as, of course, for everyone else.
Q: What productive insights have you gained in your many years of engagement in dialogue?
A: I must say that these dialogues resulted in no breakthrough, but personally I learnt many things through dialoguing with others.
Let me cite an instance. Once, I attended a meeting, and most of the participants were Hindus. I found it a very useful experience. Some of the participants spoke in a negative language. For instance, they spoke against the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. They had many complaints against him.
But I explained to them, “Aurangzeb was not a representative of Islam. I’m here as a representative of Islam, not as a representative of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was a member of the Mughal dynasty. And Mughal rule wasn’t Islamic rule. It wasn’t even Muslim rule. It was simply the rule of a certain Muslim dynasty.”
In this way, I detached Aurangzeb from Islam, and I spoke at length on Islam. This was appreciated by many people in the audience. They were very interested in what I was saying.
This is the path of wisdom, the wise approach to dialoguing, to relating, with others. In dialogue meetings, I often find Muslims trying to advocate or defend Aurangzeb and other Muslim rulers. This fails to create a favourable atmosphere, a positive atmosphere, for dialogue and for putting your position across.
So, we need to know the wisdom of how to engage in dialogue.
My personal experience is that I always achieve something positive from dialogue through this sort of wisdom. Other Muslims always try to defend the behaviour and policies of Muslim kings. But I never do that. I just say, “That person was a Muslim king. That was a Muslim dynasty. And it wasn’t Islam.” I always stress that one has to differentiate between Islam and Muslims, and that one should gauge Muslims according to Islamic teachings, and not Islamic teachings according to the behaviour of Muslims, including Muslim kings.
In this way, I have been able to promote a positive and open attitude among dialogue partners and engage in positive interaction with them.
Q: Some Muslim groups are vehemently against interfaith dialogue. What do you think of this?
A: According to my study and experience, these groups are a reaction, rather than a positive response to a situation. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is a result of reaction. It was established against Zionism. It wasn’t a pro-Islam movement. It was an anti-Zionist movement.
You have to understand this difference. An Islamic movement is one that is pro-Islam, but the Muslim Brotherhood was an anti-Zionist movement, not a pro-Islam movement. So, too, the Jamaat-e Islami, in South Asia. It was an anti-Western civilization movement, not a pro-Islam movement.
So, because of this, these and other such movements became negative. Theirs was a negative reaction to a situation. And any person or organization or movement that is a product of negative reaction cannot provide a positive response to a situation.
So, according to my experience, all these groups, although their names sound Islamic, are not Islamic. They are reactionary movements.
Q: What is the Islamic understanding of jihad?
A: ‘Jihad’ literally means to strive, to struggle. According to Islamic teachings, ‘jihad’ means peaceful struggle for dawah. The Quran (25:52) exhorts the believers to do great jihad with the help of the Quran.
Now, what does this mean?
The Quran is a book, a book of ideology. It is not a sword, a gun, a bomb. So, how can one do jihad with the help of the Quran?
What the Quran means here is peaceful struggle or striving, peaceful struggle with the help of the Quran.
There is another term that is used in the Quran—qital. It means ‘war’. There are some verses in the Quran that do allow for qital or war. So, as far as jihad is concerned, it means peaceful struggle. But the Quran does allow for qital. It must be remembered here, however, that qital or war is allowed in Islam only in defence. No other war than a defensive war is permissible in Islam. The Quran tells us that one is allowed to engage in war when others turn aggressive and attack. In addition to this are some more conditions for qital. For instance, in Islam, war is the prerogative of the Muslim state. Non-state actors are not allowed to declare war. Guerilla war, secret war, proxy war, aggressive war, and undeclared war are all un-Islamic. They are not allowed in Islam. Only defensive war is permitted. And then, this concession is for the state, not individual persons or non-state actors.
This means that all the violence you see today unleashed by Muslim non-state actors, which they wrongly hail as jihad, are not jihads at all. They are wholly un-Islamic.
Q: What is your definition of terrorism?
A: As far as I know, there is no consensus on the definition of this term. Even the US Government has failed to define it properly. I have defined terrorism as any act of violence by an agency other than the state. This means that terrorism is haram or wholly illegitimate and forbidden in Islam. Muslim terrorists use arms, but in Islam they are not allowed to, because it is only the state that has this permission, and that, too, only in defence. So, according to my definition, what these terrorists are doing is totally against Islam.
According to Islam, if people are faced with some unwanted situation, some wrongdoing, they should engage in peaceful negotiations, without using violence. Every individual or organization can and should use peaceful negotiations as a means to resolve disputes. Terror as a means to get one’s way is forbidden in Islam.
Q: Sections of the media routinely conflate terrorism with Islam. Why do you think they do this?
A: Muslims generally blame the media for this. They brand this as a ‘media conspiracy’. They claim that the media is ‘an enemy of Islam’. But all this is futile talk. I don’t subscribe to this view.
The blame in this regard goes to Muslims entirely, and not to the media.
Why, you might want to ask?
This is because Muslims spearhead their violence in the name of Islam. So, when Muslims are themselves engaged in terrorist activities in the name of Islam, is it reasonable to expect the media not to report this as it is said to?
Some Muslims argue that members of other religious groups also engage in violence, and that it is not Muslims alone who do so. That’s true, but these other people do not engage in violence in the name of their religion. Unlike Muslims, they do not seek to legitimise or justify their violence in the name of their religion.
For instance, in Assam, some Hindus are engaged in violence. In Sri Lanka, some Buddhists are engaged in violence. In Ireland, some Christians are engaged in violence. But they do not call it a ‘Christian jihad’ or whatever or claim sanction for it from their religion. It is only Muslims who do this sort of thing. Only Muslims claim that their sort of violence is a religious teaching, calling it ‘Islamic jihad’.
So, the blame for the way sections of the media report about Muslims and terrorism goes entirely to Muslims themselves. They must admit their fault. They must delink their violence from Islam. They have no right to use the name of Islam for these activities of theirs.
Q: Today, negative images of, or misconceptions about, Islam are widespread all across the world. What can be done to overcome them?
A: There’s no way other than educating Muslims. If you examine modern Muslim writings, for instance, barring a few exceptions the rest is all written in an extremely negative tone. The Muslim media propagates negative images, negative information, negative propaganda. It conveys a very negative picture of the present world to its readers and viewers. It claims that people of other faiths are enemies of Islam, which is clearly wrong. All this has made Muslims become negative. They have become angry. They have become violent.
So, this needs to change, first of all. We need Muslim media giving positive messages. And then, God willing, Muslims will turn positive.
Q: People of many religions live in India. What do you feel about the Indian experience of religious coexistence, dialogue, peace and harmony?
A: I think that India is the best country for Muslims, because in India we have a long tradition of living in peace and harmony. This is because the majority of Indians believe in diversity. The Hindu religion, based on belief in the many-ness of Reality, promotes the spirit of live and let live, which is peace and harmony. This has enabled the Hindus to willingly and peacefully live with people of many other faiths, including Muslims, for many, many centuries.
Q: What do you have to say about tensions between different religious communities in India?
A: I’m an old man now. I’ve seen both pre-Partition India and post-Partition India. I can say that before the Partition there was peace and social harmony all over India, generally speaking. The present hate, violence and intolerance that we witness are a direct result of the Partition. The blame for this goes to the Partition. The Partition broke the equilibrium of India.
Muslims must admit their fault, their mistake, the fact that they were wrong in demanding Partition. Without admitting that they were wrong, no true beginning is possible in India. I very clearly say that the Partition was wrong, and that Muslims were wrong in demanding it.
Q: What suggestions would you give for the early recognition of communal tensions and for peace-building strategies?
A: The Sufi formula, sulh-e kul, that I mentioned earlier, is the best. The Sufis were the true expression of Islam or Islamic peace. Sulh-e kul or peace with all, is the starting point. If we want peace, in India or in the whole world, this is the formula to adopt.
Peace with all means avoiding confrontation, as well as avoiding trying to forcibly eliminate differences. Differences are a part of nature. They are everywhere. You cannot eliminate them. And so, you need to learn the art of difference management, rather than the art of difference elimination.
This is the Islamic formula. Sulh-e kul means to manage differences in order to achieve peace.
Q: What are your hopes for humanity’s future?
A: I’m always hopeful. I’m not a pessimist. It is God who controls destiny. It is God who controls history. And so I think that all the negative aspects that we see are temporary.
There is a verse in the Quran: “The scum is cast away, but whatever is of use to man remains behind.” (13:17) It means that negative things are a temporary phase of history, and that God will remove them all. And God willing, peace, tolerance and humanity will prevail.
Q: What is your message to the global Muslim community?
A: I’d like to say to Muslims, “Be human-friendly.” Present-day Muslims are livingin negativity. I want to tell them, “Islam is positive. And positivity and negativity cannot go together. So, if you want to save yourself, remove all negativity from inside you. Without being positive, there is no iman, no faith. Be positive. Think positively. Behave positively. This is what the Prophet of Islam taught.”
Once, a man came to the Prophet and asked him for a master-advice by which he could manage all the affairs of his life. The Prophet replied: La taghzab, which means, ‘Don’t be angry’.
This means to manage all one’s affairs without getting angry. It means to be patient. And that if one is patient, one will be able to manage all one’s affairs.
Anger means losing one’s patience. So, when the Prophet told the man ‘Don’t be angry’, it means if you don’t lose your patience, you will be able to manage all the affairs of your life.
Present-day Muslims have lost their patience. They have become negative. They have become angry. So, they must return to the Prophet’s advice. They must abandon anger. They must abandon negativity. And then, God willing, they will succeed.
This formula, in other words, entails ignoring problems and availing existing opportunities. In life, we often face problems, difficulties, and unwanted situations. But at the same time, there are always some opportunities that are also available. Ignore the problems and avail of these opportunities, and then you will be able to move ahead. The Quran says (94:5) that with every hardship there is ease. So, you have to avoid getting entangled or embroiled in problems, and, instead, avail of the opportunities that exist. This is the Islamic formula. Muslims need to heed this.
I would also like to call upon Muslims to abandon the violence that they are engaged in, in the name of jihad, and to engage themselves in dawah work. They must recognize that problems or challenges are a part of life. They will always be there. They were there even in the Prophet’s time. This is part of nature, part of the Creation Plan of God. It is simply impossible to find a society—contemporary or in the past—that’s free of problems.
Given this, what is the best formula to follow?
I can say that the best formula is to accept the status quo and avail of existing opportunities. I call this formula ‘positive status quoism’.
This is a formula that was adopted by the Prophet.
For instance, when the Prophet was appointed as a prophet, there was a great problem. In the Kaaba the polytheists had placed 360 idols. It was the greatest problem. I don’t know of any problem greater than this. But yet, according to God’s guidance, the Prophet never disturbed these idols as long as he remained in Mecca, thirteen years after he received his prophethood.
Why was this?
It was because the Prophet adopted this same formula—accept the status quo and avail of existing opportunities. In those days, the Kaaba was the centre of all the Arab tribes. So, there was a daily assembly of polytheists from different parts of Arabia. It was the central meeting place for them. At that time, no other meeting-place was available in Makkah—no hall or park. It wasn’t possible for the Prophet to call all these people to his house. They would not have gathered there. So, the only place to address the polytheists was the Kaaba.
Now, this situation posed both a problem as well as an opportunity. The problem was the 360 idols that had been installed in the Kaaba. The opportunity was that there was a daily meeting of polytheists at the Kaaba. So, the Prophet adopted this policy—he avoided the problem of the idols and availed the opportunity provided by the meeting-place by going to the Kaaba to preach to the polytheists who came there.
This was the Prophet’s method.
I call this formula ‘positive status quoism’. That is, accept the status quo and avail the existing opportunities.
Muslims have forgotten this Prophetic wisdom.
I think that opportunities exist everywhere, in every country, India, America, Arab countries, and even in Israel. Yes, everywhere there are some problems—political or other—but, at the same time, there are many opportunities. Muslims need to recognize this. This is a Prophetic wisdom that they have forgotten. They must act on it. They must bring it into their lives. They must ignore problems and avail the many opportunities that exist everywhere, in every country.
This is my message to my Muslim brethren throughout the world.
Q: What message would you like to share with people of other faiths?
A: I think that we have to respect all other faiths. The Quran (109:6) says “You have your religion and I have mine.” This means that you follow one religion, and respect other religions. When you adopt this formula, you will inculcate peace in your mind, and this will enable you to achieve spiritual development. You will also be able to engage in peaceful and positive dialogue with others. You have to be positive toward other faiths so that you can enter into positive dialogue with their followers. This is very important and beneficial.
Q: From your point of view, what is the call to action for all people at this time in history?
A: The greatest mistake committed by all people, including Muslims, is that they fail to understand the Creation Plan of God. This world has been created in order to test us. It is a testing-ground. God has given freedom to all human beings, because without freedom there is no test. Freedom is an integral part of this test.
Now, we have the freedom to use this freedom properly or to misuse it. Although God sees that people are misusing this freedom, He is not going to abolish it. Why? Because abolishing it would mean abolishing God’s very Creation Plan. So, freedom will continue, and when there is freedom, people will misuse it, and then there is war, there is violence, and so on.
Given this, the only formula for peace is the Quranic one of as-sulh khair, ‘reconciliation is best’. You have to reconcile with others. When you have a problem and you want a peaceful solution to it, you have to adopt the conciliatory course, not the confrontational course. This is the formula for establishing peace.
I want also to add that you can’t eliminate problems or settle disputes or controversies through force. The only way is through avoidance, through ignoring provocations. For instance, some years ago, some cartoons were published in a Danish paper and Muslims throughout the world got very angry. There were furious demonstrations. There was violence. There was killing and shooting. At that time I wrote an article titled ‘Muslims Must Ignore Cartoons’.
Without ignoring provocations, we can’t have peace. If we want peace, we have to adopt tolerance. We have to ignore unwanted things. Without patience and tolerance, we can’t have peace. But what many people do is wrong. They try to forcibly eliminate all unwanted things. Instead of promoting peace, it only further exacerbates conflict.
This is a wrong approach. You can’t eliminate unwanted things from society in this way. You have just one option, and that is tolerance. No other option is available. If you want peace, ignore the problem and there is peace.
This is really, I want to tell people, the best formula for peace.