By Sajida Mohammed
I came across a picture that I took during the last lecture in my final year at university. The module was titled: Spirituality and Mysticism in the Abrahamic Faiths. The Abrahamic faiths are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We had our three lecturers take that last class; a Jew, Christian and Muslim. The picture captures the three of them talking, and I remember thinking; this is interfaith.
We (the students) were from different religious and cultural backgrounds, learning from teachers who are of different religious and cultural backgrounds too. For most of us in the U.K, this diversity is present in our everyday. There is nothing surprising about it, for me, and is something we often take for granted. If interfaith were a verb, we are people who ‘interfaith’ every day.
I recently took part in an ‘interfaith youth leadership program.’ Take out the ‘interfaith’ and what you’re left with is a youth leadership program. Assuming the program was publicised as a ‘youth leadership program’, those who attended would most likely have been of different faiths anyway. Even the outcome of the program would not have been different, because in essence, they are teaching a group of aspiring youngsters how to make positive change.
So why add the ‘interfaith’? It could be because the organisation who ran the program are an interfaith organisation. Perhaps the addition was made to appeal to people like me who are interested in coming together with members of different faiths and learning about one another. Whatever the case, the program made me realise that ‘interfaith’ is really just a word used to express what we, or I certainly, do every day – interact.
When we interact conscious of the fact that we are of different faiths – this becomes interfaith dialogue. And herein, for me, lies the subtle difference.
When you have a random conversation on the bus with a stranger, you are interacting with them without focusing on their background. Is this also interfaith if you are a Muslim and they are Sikh? Of course it is.
I have neighbours who are Christian; we’ve shared food during Eid and cards during Christmas, exchanged stories and plans for the future, we complain about their dog and they complain about the noise from our children – is this also interfaith? Yes, it is, for me.
Do we wonder if the driver is of a certain faith before we jump on a bus, train or cab? We are not wired to ask these questions. In the larger scheme of things – interfaith, for me, is simply everyday interaction, communication, and conversation.
On another level, these conversations are carried out in the form of official documents. Texts which reach out to members of different faiths as that oft-quoted olive branch. Texts like ‘Nostra Aetate’, ‘A Common Word’ and ‘Dabru Emet’ exist to shed light on interfaith dialogue. Due to the unfortunate history of violence and hostility based on misconstrued understandings of our different traditions, these texts have become necessary. Of course, they have been criticized, but the important thing is that they exist, they are accessible and in essence they are all saying one thing; we can coexist harmoniously regardless of what we believe.
Being human calls for it.
It is a common misconception that ‘interfaith dialogue’ expects you to water down your own belief in the place of someone else’s. It assumes that in order for me and someone else to have a cordial relationship, I must accept doctrines and beliefs that fundamentally contradict my own. That in order for me to be accepted by others, I must alter my ethical compass to believe in homosexuality or female bishops or whatever sparks debate these days. That is not so. As an individual I can understand or simply listen without affirming it as a way of life for me.
Some people do engage in interfaith dialogue with a conversion agenda, and conversion does occur, but that boils down to how we view interfaith as individuals. For me, in these muddled and often murky media-dominating times, interfaith is about conversation not conversion. My sister met someone who thought Islam was about a sun and moon god; ‘read it on the internet’, he said. It was funny, but their conversation led to a misunderstanding dispelled. Interfaith is not asking you to put your faith on hold in order to accept someone else’s. It’s about understanding. And how can we understand one another if we don’t talk and listen to each other?
Someone once wrote, ‘I think the primary goal of inter-religious dialogue is simply to listen to and come to know others. In comprehending another faith, we come to a far deeper understanding and appreciation of our own belief. In our reflection in the other, we come to see ourselves anew. It is not a casual comparison of recipes, but a sincere effort to know one another as we are.’
The sanctity of life is a common theme across our different faiths, acting as the bind which makes interfaith (interaction) possible. If we, as individuals, cannot find common ground in anything else, let us find it in that.
Our faith is our own, but we are not alone in this world…
So let us talk to one other.