I belong to a vast family of God, where all human beings, without any distinctions, are brothers and sisters.
Dr. Fr. Victor Edwin SJ
The Islamic Studies Association (ISA) is an organisation of Catholics in India who are engaged in promoting interfaith understanding and inter-community harmony between Christians and Muslims. Recently, the Bishop of Jammu and Kashmir, Bishop Ivan Pereira, invited the Islamic Studies Association to conduct a programme, titled ‘Interfaith Sharing’, at Jammu. The programme was held on February 27, 2021, at the Ismailpur Pastoral Centre.
A three-member team from the Islamic Studies Association, consisting of Sister Sneha, FatherArun Mozhi SJ and myself, went to Jammu for the programme. Sister Sneha and Fr. Arun are both deeply committed to promoting interfaith relations and the welfare of the poor and marginalised. And I, as a student and a teacher of Christian-Muslim relations, accompanied them for the programme.
The programme had three components. The first component, which was conducted by myself, focussed on interfaith relations, with special emphasis on Christian-Muslim relations. The second component focussed on the context in which we reflect on interfaith relations and share with each other our views and thoughts about the issue. The context for us is a pluralistic India, home to many religions, cultures and ways of life, and the Constitution of India and issues such as Constitutional values and human rights. The third component was about listening to Muslims. We had invited 10 Muslim brothers and sisters from Rajouri. They are members of an organisation called Centre for Peace and Spirituality, which is based in New Delhi. In this session, they spoke about their faith Islam and about how the Holy Qur’an and the life of the Prophet of Islam had helped them to be better persons, better Muslims.
I do not want to give a report on the programme here. What I would like to do is to reflect on some of my experiences during the programme.
“I had requested our Muslim brothers to give more of a faith-sharing not about the rules and regulations or theoretical part of their faith, but, rather, more about how their life is shaped by the Holy Qur’an and the life of the Prophet of Islam”.
What is Interfaith Dialogue?
In my sharing with the participants in the programme at Jammu, I reflected on these experiences of mine, from the things I had learnt from interacting with Muslim brothers and sisters. Then, we talked about interfaith dialogue.
Often, people think that interfaith dialogue is something only ‘experts’ do or can do. I had to challenge that notion. Interfaith dialogue is simply the dialogue of life. The respect and esteem that we show to others is the starting point for dialogue respecting them as fellow human beings, respecting their religious convictions, respecting their ways of life, respecting their thirst for peace and justice, their thirst for harmony, their thirst for God in their life.
We began with that. We talked about dialogue as conversation, conversation between people holding significantly different views on some things. I emphasised that the differences are significant. I also spoke about how we look at other through our own lenses and interpret them accordingly and so, we need to practice caution.
Another point that I emphasised was that interfaith dialogue is not polemics or debate or apologetics. I drew from examples from the history of Christian-Muslim relations to show how polemics generate heat but not light, how debates end without any mutual learning, how apologetics is a one-way journey, where there is no co-pilgrim.
I also shared about how interfaith dialogue is a certain way of thinking, seeing and reflecting on reality. I reflected on how important it is for us to try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, as it were. I stressed that dialogue needs open-mindedness to appreciate differences and plurality not simply tolerating differences, which is not a virtue at all. Going beyond mere tolerance, we need to appreciate religious differences and religious plurality.
I also emphasised that we must shed exclusiveness and feelings of superiority. Sometimes, we behave like triumphalists, as if we have a monopoly over truth. We need to shed that attitude.
God is a mystery. For Christians, Jesus is very important for us in our hope for God-experience. Similarly, other faith communities have their own understanding of God-experience. We need to see how we can mutually enrich one another and continue to go towards God, towards God as a mystery. We cannot comprehend God, but we can have experiences of God. When people from different religious backgrounds share our experiences of God with one another, we feel and experience that God is at the heart of human life. So, there is no exclusivism, no supremacism, no triumphalism all of which should be shed.
I spoke about how the primary purpose of interfaith dialogue is to learn and experience mutual enrichment. I also shared about how by learning about other religions and their followers we can grow in wisdom and faith. By opening up to Muslims, a Christian can become a better follower of Christ. In other words, one can grow in one’s own faith by interacting with people of other faiths. Our faith is not compromised through this interaction. Rather, it is deepened and becomes more open. I said that we take roots and we also take wings!
Sharing and Witnessing
After lunch, the next session began the third component. I had requested our Muslim brothers to give more of a faith-sharing—not about the rules and regulations or theoretical part of their faith, but, rather, more about how their life is shaped by the Holy Qur’an and the life of the Prophet of Islam. A young lady also spoke, very well, with confidence, on women in Islam. Senior members of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality beautifully shared about how they had changed in their life journey, and how the words of the Holy Qur’an and the life of the Prophet had helped them to live in peace. In this way, the CPS members gave witness to their faith.
When people from different faiths give witness to their respective faiths together, we can grow in our recognition of our common brotherhood and sisterhood. This one-day programme provided some precious opportunities for that. Personally, it was another transformative experience for me of understanding God’s call for all of us to know one another, appreciate one another, and love one another, for God loves each one of us.