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Dawah and Interfaith

The “R” Word: Giving Life to Interfaith Dialogue


by Ubah

Considering the era in which we live in today, many topics that were once considered “taboo” are now openly discussed and even satirized via mediums such as film, text, classrooms, and of course, the internet. Things that were once considered “embarrassing” or “shameful” to talk about such as sex/sexuality, personal development, mental health, and so on, now constitute the norm of daily inter-personal discussion (at least in most parts of the West and Europe).

What fascinates me, however, is that despite the apparent open-mindedness that has seemed to accompany the modernity and “progress” of the 21st century, there is one topic that puts most people on the edge of their seats. A topic which has those willing to engage in discourse about controversial issues such as teen abstinence or drug-abuse fleeing from their place of discussion – and that topic is RELIGION.

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I had not been aware of how uneasy people felt about the “R” word until I, myself, became a little more educated in the area. After taking a number of religious studies courses, I was surprised at how much I did not know – not only about other religions, but my own as well. I began to see how the stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions that I had been holding onto in terms of other religions were simply unacceptable. However, after listening to and participating in various class discussions, I also found that many, many people held stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions about Islam that, too, were completely unacceptable. I then realized that in order to be able to defend the religion of Islam from unwarranted attacks and judgements, I not only had to educate myself about the deen of Islam, but I also had to learn about other religions. I mean, how could I defend Islam without a) knowing about it myself and b) knowing how to counter arguments that stemmed from religious views other than my own? To me, climbing out of my hole of ignorance made practical sense.

And so I embarked on a journey of studying other religious denominations, and even took up religious studies as my minor. After learning about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Indigenous religions, and even some miscellaneous beliefs such as Scientology and the Rastafarian movement, I realized that the lens through which I had been viewing the world around me had been extremely blurred. Although I felt guilty for being so utterly ignorant of other people’s beliefs, I found that the more I learned about other religions, the more my own beliefs in Islam became confirmed. That is not to say that I had doubted Islam, but I suffered from something that most people born into Islam did: the inability to justify and understand why I was a Muslim. Looking back, I realize that when I was approached with questions such as “why do you wear that thing on your head?” or “why don’t you eat pork?”, I’d brush people away with answers such as “it’s my personal choice” or “because it’s part of my religion”. The scary part was that I’d do it without seeing these type of answers as a problem. I’d almost look down at people and even become annoyed at – what I saw as – their audacity for questioning MY beliefs. I mean, who were they to do so?

But alhamdullilah, this line of thinking which I had held onto for years was finally shattered when I started to question myself about my beliefs: why did I wear the hijab? Why, exactly, did I refrain from drinking alcohol or eating pork? Interestingly, questioning myself and finding the answers led me to question why other people of various religious denominations believed the things that they did. I mean to me, Islam made perfect sense – testify that your Lord is One with no partners (whether these “partners” manifest themselves as other deities, statues, people, concepts, ideologies, etc) and testify that the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is His last and final Messenger. So, where and in what way, exactly, did Islam differ from other religions?

As a mission to reach out and learn more, I took what I learned in the academic world and began to apply it to the real world: I began to ask Christians about the historical/textual authenticity of the Bible and Sikhs about why men, and not women, were required to cover their hair. I felt that what I had learned had given me a sort of confidence – the ability to not only answer other people’s questions  about Islam, but to ask them intellectual questions about the beliefs that they held.

However, I began to realize that for many people, this engagement in religious discourse made them feel uncomfortable – even threatened! I inferred this from their change in demeanor (specifically, body language) when the subject of religion was brought up. Interestingly, these same people who had, a few moments ago, been willing to discuss anything from sexual orientation to bodily movements, were now either averting there gaze from my face, coyly looking to the ground, anxiously shifting their weight on their feet, immediately changing the subject, giving me a weird look, or all of the above – and then some.

I couldn’t fully understand why this was – I mean, what was it about the “R” word that made people so uncomfortable? I have, in my own way, tried to come up with some answers to this question. Reasons may include:

1. Stereotypes/biases against the very idea of religion.

Through many mediums, especially the media, followers of various religious groups have been portrayed as extreme/fanatic/irrational/etc. Although their may be an inkling of truth to this, it’s mainly untrue. I’m sure any Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc will tell you that they’re just a normal person trying to live a life of pleasing their Lord.

2. Ignorance – about one’s own views or the views of others.

Although many people profess faith – and some completely deny it – their understanding as to why/why not they believe or disbelieve may be limited. Therefore, people may shy away from religious dialogue due to their general lack of knowledge in the area and the shortage of confidence that accompanies it.

3. Close-mindedness.

Many people won’t admit it, but they do hold implicit/explicit beliefs about religion/worshipers. This may effect their behavior towards religious discourse in a negative fashion and cause them to dampen or avoid discussing the topic altogether.

4. Surprise.

Maybe people are surprised when the topic of religion is brought up because it’s something that people, unfortunately, just don’t talk about these days. I say, let’s start a movement & begin to question one another about our beliefs (on intellectual and respectful grounds). Why? Well, why not?

So the question now is: where do we go from here? Most people know religion exists, but they simply don’t want to acknowledge it. I say, discard any predisposed biases you may have towards ANY religion and truly open your mind. Further, regardless of which religion you may or may not follow, sincerely study why you believe in what you do so that you may not only feel more confident in engaging in religious dialogue, but so that you’ll also know how to tackle any pressing questions other people may have about your own beliefs – or lack thereof.

A few years ago, I was probably the type to shut myself off from discussing the topic of religion, but with education came enlightenment and with enlightenment came the realization of how crucial it is to separate faith from blind faith. I now refuse to believe for the sake of believing and instead, have faith in the religion of Islam because the questions posed by my rational, logical, and practical mind have been answered, and continue to be answered. Further, part of freeing myself from blind faith has been through engaging in conversations with others and holding much needed inter-faith dialogues. One must remember, however, that there is a right time and place to do so. Also, one must take into consideration who they are speaking to. I have been fortunate enough to have come across some very open-minded people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, but it’s not that way all of the time.

Remember, change can be threatening and thus, having one’s beliefs questioned may be the most threatening type of change there is. Regardless, it’s time for us to put our guards down a bit and learn about the world around us. It’s time for us to realize that there are countless beliefs that exist outside of our own and that it’s very important for us to step out of our shells of ignorance and explore the world beyond these homes of comfort.

Finally, it’s time for us to make the topic of religion a norm of daily discussion and something that we look forward to engaging in.

And Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows best.

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  1. Asmeeni

    July 5, 2012 at 12:55 AM

    Very sensible and well written article Mashaallah. Its a sad truth that religion isn’t regarded as a priority in life by a lot of people and as such, is not discussed. Discussing our different beliefs is a great way of opening our minds and broadening our worldview. Jazakumullah Khairan for this.

  2. Sadaf Farooqi

    July 5, 2012 at 6:16 AM

    I can relate so much to this article.
    Jazak Allahu khair for this post. However, I was wondering who the author is?

    • ~ ubah

      July 5, 2012 at 8:33 AM

      Assalamu alaykum sister & baraak Allahu feeki. I am the author ;)

  3. Abdul Kareem

    July 5, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    A thought provoking article indeed. As rightly pointed out by the author, in order to have a meaningful and productive inter-faith dialogue the parties concerned should know their own religion/beliefs well (that is why they subscibe to certain views/practices) besides having a good understanding of other belief systems.


    July 5, 2012 at 2:41 PM

    A reason for the discomfort in talking about religion (for those who have a religion) is that for many non-Muslims, they have to admit somewhere in their heart that what they believe doesn’t make sense. Also, a lot of people don’t like to talk about religion for it leads to, for many, the uncomfortable topic of death and that what most people in these corporate-consumer countries are pursuing is ultimately a lie.

  5. Dreamlife

    July 6, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    JazakAllah for a very relevant and interesting piece.

    Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but to me the main reason
    for the discomfort and lack of discussion about religion is that we live in
    secular societies – where many times, religion is DELIBERATELY removed from the
    public sphere, and relegated to a ‘private matter’ that shouldn’t be talked

    Obviously, taking God out of the public discourse leads to a
    lack of God-consciousness, which easily degenerates into failing morality (or
    at least – morality based on what humans decide is right and wrong) and the
    rise of atheism and all kinds of cults and beliefs totally void of truth.

    What you say about faith vs blind faith is absolutely right.
    Sadly for many born-Muslims, our Islam is often just an inherited cultural
    practice – largely void of deep levels of understanding and a desire to learn
    and live it as a complete way of life. And this lack of in-depth knowledge is
    most definitely a barrier to da’wah and discussion – because we don’t want
    anyone or anything to ask us uncomfortable questions. Nothing should challenge
    our comfort zone of the superficial way we practice and understand Islam.

    But I think the recent years’ events – which have put
    Muslims and Islam at the forefront of news and international affairs – have been
    a blessing in that it’s forced many of us to go beyond the comfort zone and actually
    learn about Islam in a way we otherwise wouldn’t have. The actions of the few
    bad apples often bring about mass condemnation of the whole ummah and the deen –
    which pushes us to educate ourselves so that we can defend ourselves based on
    knowledge, and not just emotion.

    By the way, if you’re looking for daily discussions and
    debates about religion, you need only pop into one of my country’s major news
    websites – where the opinions section is an ongoing battle between religions.
    Mostly atheists vs believers, but also specific debates around Islam, and Christianity.
    You’ll find PLENTY of Islamophobes as well as militant atheists that are always
    ready to debate with you and insult Islam:

    I invite ALL Muslims who can write well and express
    themselves well to join in and help educate those who are sorely in need of
    authentic knowledge about Islam and Muslims.

  6. Johan Tristan Aslim

    August 6, 2013 at 4:50 AM

    A good example of modern interfaith dialogue is the Halal Monk website. It collects the conversations of a Christian theologian with influential spiritual leaders and important artists of the Muslim world.

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