Muslim Peace Fellowship

let there be no compulsion in religion

An Essay On Evil

By Rabia Terri Harris

Presented at “Mayhem in the Middle East: Cultural and Religious Destruction and Persecution of Minorities,” a program of the Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation, Queens, NY.

July 26, 2014 / 29 Ramadan 1435.

A`udhu biLlahi min ash-shaytan ir-rajim

BismiLlah ir-rahman ir-rahim

as-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatu Llahi wa barakatuhu.

 

Thank you friends who have gathered here this afternoon, despite the difficulties, for this important moment, and special thanks to the people of the al-Khoei Foundation, one of the great Islamic institutions, who have opened their doors and their hearts to all of us. Whatever our background or religious persuasion, those of us gathered here tonight, and millions like us, are people of common concern. We are taking a stand against evil.

Evil is an unfashionable word, but I would argue that without it, we can make no real sense of the world, nor gather the strength to act, nor gain clarity about how, indeed, we should act. Now, my understanding of evil is an Islamic one, formed by what is, in my estimation, the key parable in the Qur’an. While the Bible begins its consideration of evil with the episode often referred to the Fall of Man, the Qur’an directs our attention to its prequel: the Revolt of Satan.

In several places in the Qur’anic text we are told that the angels were called upon to prostrate themselves to the newly-created human being, but that one member of the high assembly refused to do so. This is Satan, the personification and origin of evil, and the first thing we can learn from this parable about the nature and identifying features of evil is that it refuses to honor the dignity of humanity. When questioned about motives, Satan said, “You have created me of fire, and that of clay. I am better.” So the second thing we learn about identifying evil is that it claims intrinsic superiority to the object of its hate. And the third thing we learn is that is has contempt for clay, for the common ground from which we all are made.

Translated into modern terms, this parable suggests that evil may be diagnosed wherever we find dehumanization, domination, and radical disrespect for the earth. These traits are not in short supply. Neither can we conveniently locate them in the acts of any one group. We are beset from every side.

I use the word “diagnosed” quite intentionally. For the most provocative implication of the Qur’anic parable is that evil is not intrinsic to the human being, something built into us that we can do nothing about. It is more like a spiritual infection, highly contagious, often lethal, that any of us, at any moment, might catch. But there are preventatives for it, and there are even cures, though cure is not easy. It is toward these preventatives, and cures, that all of our spiritual traditions are directed. For people do recover from evil, and it is to that potential recovery that those of us who are wary, who have taqwa, and who are not presently infected, would do well to devote ourselves.

We will never be able to eliminate evil from the earth. But we may be able to rescue our brothers and sisters from its effects, and perhaps even vaccinate against it. In this enterprise, nonviolence is crucial.

One of the commonest weaknesses of the human spiritual immune system that allows evil to enter is the belief that violence can bring about peace and justice. Violence never brings about peace or justice. Violence brings about evil. The best it can accomplish, in the best of cases, is exhaustion, which sometimes allows for the sorts of negotiations that should have been undertaken in the first place. Violence mostly accomplishes forcible silencing – which means the life of lies – bitterness, vengefulness, and simmering resentment which call the curse of God down on any victory attainable through its means. And violence produces the heart of stone, which is the fuel of Hell. If Hell is not our objective, then violence cannot be our road. The Qur’an tells us unequivocally la ikraha fid-deen: there can be no compulsion in religion. Muslims in particular need to be absolutely committed to this divine command.

The other common weakness that betrays us to evil is the terrible need to be right. If we want to be of service in the world, then we must train ourselves in humility. Naturally we all believe that our positions are correct: that is why we hold them. But there is no necessity that other people agree with us! Indeed, it is part of the generosity of God that they do not: according to hadith, differences of opinion in the community are a mercy. The great Sunni legal scholar Abu Hanifa sets a fine example for people of strong views. “I believe my opinions are correct, but I am willing to consider that they might be wrong,” he famously remarked. “I believe my opponent’s opinions are wrong, but I am willing to consider that they might be correct.” If we cannot do this, then the people who differ from us may begin to appear monstrous, rather than human, to us…and this is a symptom showing that we have been infected with monstrosity ourselves.

We are not obligated to be right. God does not demand that we be right, but that we be sincere, and that we seek an ever-closer approach to truth. Rightness belongs to God, not to human beings, and the issue of our actual rightness waits to be settled in the next life: “The return of you all is to Allah,” the Qur’an tells us, “and it is Allah who will inform you about those matters wherein you differed.” This really is – and therefore ought to be! – the last word on the matter.

However, we persist in wanting to demonstrate our own rightness. The Qur’an speaks to this weakness, too. It tells us that the question of who is right can only be answered approximately in this world, and that the measure that counts is, Who is doing the most good? “If Allah had so willed, he would have made you all one community, but He wishes to test you in that which he has given you. So compete with each other in good works.” Violence is not a good work. Cruelty is not a good work. Wanton destruction of what is precious is not a good work. Such acts may be intoxicating, but intoxication means the presence of poison. The human heart knows the difference – and it is upon the heart of flesh and spirit, the seat of God’s grace amidst of the horrors of the world, that we must ultimately rely. The last fatwa, as the hadith goes, belongs to the heart.

I would like to suggest to you that – whoever we are – until we have recognized and neutralized our own propensities toward violence and arrogance, we will be unable to intervene productively in other people’s cases of evil. We will simply contract it ourselves. In this way the cycle goes on. Our whole business – our whole urgent business – is to break that cycle, God willing. It is to breaking that cycle that we are committing ourselves here today.

Allah gives us the advice we need in the Qur’an. (I will leave it to my brothers and sisters of other faiths to locate that advice in their own sources.) We read: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel evil with that which is better: then the one between whom and you was hatred will become like an intimate friend.” To set out to win friendship rather than inflict destruction: this is the strategy for transformation, and, I believe, the only way out of the terrible mess we are in.

In closing, I would like to call your attention to the many good deeds, the many acts of friendship, the many refusals of evil, that are already arising among us. And in particular let me point out to you my young colleague Fu`ad AbulAmeer, who fled Baghdad, spent years as a refugee in Syria, and is now, from the United States, turning back with compassion to other young people left behind with his Hamada Initiative. Make sure to take his flyer, and support his effort. It is through supporting each other’s efforts that we will find the way forward.

May Allah accept our best intentions and protect us from the enemy of us all. Amin.

Upcoming Event: Interfaith Panel Discussion on the Middle East… This Saturday, July 26th– Join us!

Mayhem in the Middle East

Cultural and Religious Destruction and Persecution of Minorities
You are Invited!
 
Guest Speakers:

Father Guirguist S. Tadros, Egyptian Coptic Priest, St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Center in Woodbury New York.

Mark Johnson Phd., Executive Director, The Center and Library for the Biblical and Social Justice, Former Executive Director, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Founder and Director, the Shalom Center.

Dr. Mohamed Al-Hakim, Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations.

Sr. Rabia Terri Harris, Chaplain and Scholar on Islamic Nonviolence.

Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, Director of the Al-Khoei Foundation, New York and North American Representative of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani.

Saturday, July 26, 2014 @ 6:30 pm
IMAM AL-KHOEI FOUNDATION,
8989 Van Wyck Expway, Jamaica, NY 11435, U.S.A.
1.718.297.6520

Make a Donation Button

 

New Muslim Peace Fellowship phone conference Sunday!

Allah never changes the condition of a people until they change it themselves”

Coming! Reserve a space now!

Evening of November 4, 2012

MPF Phone Conference with Abdelnasser Rashid

Program Director, New Americans Democracy Project

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Member of Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council for MPF

“Elections as a Tool of Nonviolent Resistance”

Why vote? Find out!

Q & A moderated by MPF Program Coordinator Sahar Alsahlani

info at sahar_alsahlani@hotmail.com

Introducing Sahar Alsahlani

Salams my Brothers and`Sisters of the Muslim Ummah,

I am honored and humbled to join the Muslim Peace Fellowship Family.

I look forward to this blessing and opportunity to help continue the mission of  peace, reconciliation, and multi-religious solidarity for social justice, insha’allah.

Looking forward to posting more soon.

Sahar Alsahlani

NEW FUTURES FOR ISRAEL AND PALESTINE PRESENTS:

ABOUT EVENT:

My Life as an Israeli Soldier: The Realities of Israeli Occupation

With Yoav Litvin

Sunday July 22 at 3 PM
at The Fellowship of Reconciliation 521 N Broadway, Nyack NY

Yoav Litvin is a doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience, currently conducting his postdoctoral research at The Rockefeller University, NYC. Born in Jerusalem, Israel, Yoav moved with his family to the United States where he spent his elementary school years. Yoav moved back to Israel for his high school years and subsequent military service in the Israel Defense Force where he served as a paratrooper and medic for three years. During those years he spent long months in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in South Lebanon. Yoav will speak of his personal experiences and the realities of the Occupation.

For more info contact: rabbilynn@earthlink.net

SAVING SYRIA: Sign up for call-in information!

Hudaybiya: Islam’s Victory by Nonviolent Resistance

By Adnan Majid

Which one event does the Qur’an describe as the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ (peace be upon him) “manifest victory”?

A. The Muslim conquest of the entire Arabian Peninsula, Jerusalem, and beyond

B.The Prophet’s ﷺ re-entry into Mecca and the destruction of the pagan idols in the temple of Abraham1`alayhi assalaam (peace be upon him)

C. A nonviolent Muslim movement resulting in a peace treaty and compromise with long-time enemies

It may come as a surprise, but the answer is C. True, the Arab Spring showed the world that Muslims can embrace nonviolent resistance to successfully affect change, but this commitment to nonviolence has rarely been described as a religious expression grounded in Islam. Many in the West have thus raised the fear that Islamic-minded movements in the post-revolutionary Arab world—Tunisia’s Ennahda or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for instance—simply used nonviolence as a convenient way to assume power, after which they will turn to force and repression. This fear is overblown, for Muslims can indeed use Islamic religious tradition to firmly ground the principles of nonviolent resistance and faithful compromise with secularists and non-Muslims for the common good. And nothing can do that better, in my opinion, than reviving the legacy of an event in the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ life that occurred at a barren camp named Hudaybiya—an event Islamic tradition calls a “manifest victory”2 .

Before discussing this event, it is worth remembering the legacy of the first thirteen years of Muhammad’s ﷺ prophetic mission in Mecca (610-622 AD)—a period that so powerfully inspired Gandhi’s Afghan counterpart in the independence struggle, Khan Abdul-Ghaffar Khan, and his Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) towards a deeply devout Muslim commitment to nonviolence. “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or Pathan [Afghan] like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence…” said Khan, “It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet [ﷺ] all the time he was in Mecca.”3

No one can dispute Khan’s assessment. Mecca’s wealthy elite vehemently opposed the Prophet’s ﷺ monotheistic message and unleashed a heavy toll of physical and economic persecution upon Islam’s weakest followers. Nevertheless, Muhammad ﷺ unconditionally forbade retaliation and enjoined a complete and patient commitment to nonviolence. When persecution became intolerable, he and the early Muslims migrated to Medina, where he established a sovereign state in 622 AD. Only then did Islam permit military action. The young Medinan state saw a series of battles with its Meccan enemies—Badr in 624, Uhud in 625, and the unsuccessful siege of Medina in 6274 —resulting in increasing Muslim regional influence. Though war brought its political gains, the Prophet ﷺ would soon show that he had never abandoned nonviolent resistance—it would bring forth his greatest victory.

Each year, the far-flung Arabian tribes would converge in Mecca for pilgrimage to the temple of their patriarch Abraham5 (peace be upon him). In the spring of 628, seeking to underscore his claim that Abraham was indeed not a polytheist, the Prophet ﷺ did what many would describe as daringly foolish and led 1400 followers into enemy territory, intent on peacefully performing pilgrimage. Bound by an ancient code of nonviolence, the Muslim pilgrims could carry no more than travelers’ swords for self-defense and would have been no match for the Meccan cavalry sent to rout them. Evading the cavalry and encamping within the sacred vicinity of Mecca, the Prophet ﷺ had essentially led his followers into a lion’s den.

Like all nonviolent resistance movements, the Muslims at Hudaybiya were at once incredibly weak and incredibly powerful—“weak” in being unable to match any abject brutality unleashed upon them, but “powerful” in that the public outrage elicited by such brutality would be far too socially costly to the powers in control. Neither the British Raj nor Jim Crow could afford to crack down on nonviolent protesters without earning the world’s condemnation. Likewise, in the sacred context of pilgrimage, the Meccans could not afford to massacre peaceful pilgrims without earning the condemnation of the entire Arabian Peninsula. After a prolonged stalemate, the Prophet ﷺ called the two parties towards a peace treaty.

Peace often requires seemingly difficult compromises. The treaty dictated that Muslims would return to Medina unable to perform pilgrimage until the following year, that anyone would be free to apostate from Islam, and that all male, Muslim refugees were to be returned to their Meccan captors. The Prophet’s ﷺ acceptance of these terms led to considerable dissension among his own followers until a new Qur’anic revelation described the events as a “manifest victory” (48:1)6 . Suppressing their personal emotions, the Muslims would have to trust that nonviolent engagement and political compromise were in themselves a victory.

Historians now recount how more people became Muslim in the following years of peace than in all the previous years of Muhammad’s ﷺ prophetic mission. When Mecca’s allies later broke the peace to resume hostilities, the Muslims conquered the city without fighting and completely forgave their former enemies. Although this military accomplishment was a “victory,” the Prophet ﷺ  made sure to remind everyone that Islam’s “manifest victory” had already occurred at Hudaybiya long before7) . It was nonviolence, not war, and political compromise, not rigid adherence to dogma, that brought that victory.

But in an age of conflict between “Muslims” and “the West,” it is certain that both Muslim extremists and anti-Islamic polemicists will dispute any Islamic justification for nonviolent resistance. I will just briefly address a few objections from both these groups, who, though nominally opposed to one another, remarkably speak with a single voice.

1) “Hudaybiya was not a true commitment to nonviolence—the Muslims had pledged to defend themselves physically if the Meccans attacked ((Known as the Pledge of the Tree, or Bay’at ash-Shajara.)) .” If the Meccans saw fit to break the sacred code and spill blood, the Muslim pilgrims certainly could not expect Meccan brutality to stop at a beating and a prison sentence. Rather, they expected being massacred. In that context, the Prophet ﷺ and his followers clearly saw fighting back with the little means they had as far more honorable than fleeing from their cause, even if it meant certain death. This commitment, an inspiration to all Muslims engaged in civil disobedience, by no means made their movement any less nonviolent—the Meccans themselves acknowledged such.

2) “Any Islamic justification for nonviolence has been abrogated. From the time hostilities with Mecca resumed, Muslims were bound to perpetual warfare with disbelievers until the end of time.” The Qur’an’s ninth chapter8 did enjoin Muslims to fight the Meccans after the treaty of Hudaybiya was broken, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that this would eternally prohibit Muslims from ever again turning to nonviolence or compromise. This very chapter itself calls for continued commitment to peace with polytheists who “neither failed you anywhere nor supported anyone against you” (Qur’an 9:4). And the Prophet ﷺ himself would never forget Hudaybiya’s legacy, for he reminded everyone of this “manifest victory” on his return to Mecca.

3) “Hudaybiya’s true legacy is one of deception; Muhammad [ﷺ] made a treaty when weak only to break it when stronger.” This charge simply does not stand up to historical record. Though the Prophet ﷺ took a dangerous risk in leaving behind Medina’s security, determined nonviolent resistance is never truly “weak.” And while Muslim strength did increase in the following years of peace, history recounts the Prophet’s ﷺ faithful compliance to the treaty, broken by Mecca’s allies. Hindsight is 20/20, but Hudaybiya was declared a “manifest victory” long before the eventual outcomes were known—when all that were apparent were nonviolent action, a failed pilgrimage attempt, and a difficult compromise for the sake of peace.

So what victory should Islamic-minded parties in today’s post-revolutionary Arab world work towards? Some in the Muslim world may aspire to establish societies devoted to God’s “sharia” or well-trodden path, but in focusing on this “end,” they may unfortunately turn to whatever means deemed necessary, however violent or duplicitous. By contrast, Hudaybiya’s legacy should remind all devout Muslims that real victory is achievable through constructive, lawful means. In this particular case, true and lasting victory was achieved through firm adherence to nonviolent resistance and non-dogmatic compromise with opposition. A resulting civil society arising from these principles—one at least able to ensure individual liberties and minority rights—may surprise some people but may be closer in line to the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ powerful precedent at Hudaybiya—Islam’s one and only “manifest victory.”

 

1. The Ka`bah []

2. Arabic: Fath Mubeen []

3. Easwaran, Eknath. Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, a Man to Match His Mountains. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1999. []

4. Known as the Battle of the Trench, or Khandaq []

5. The Hajj []

6. The first verse of Sura al-Fath reads Inná fatahná laka fatham mubeená – “We have indeed opened for you a manifest victory.” []

7. Abdullah ibn Mughaffal narrates, “I saw the God’s Messenger ﷺ reciting Sura al-Fath (melodiously) on his she-camel on the day of Mecca’s conquest.” (Bukhari []

8. The Chapter of Repentance, or Sura at-Tawba []

Which Muslim Leader Is the Real Champion of Peace?

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

People say this all the time when I teach courses about Islam and peace at colleges, universities and places of worship.

With the Muslim world erupting in chaos from the Libyan shores of Bin Ghazi to the tribal areas of Pakistan, this yearning for peace is becoming a global phenomenon. But name a Muslim leader today, spiritual or political, who has the vision, global presence, personal integrity and a track record of establishing peace.

Well, the wait is over.

Meet His Holiness, Mirza Masroor Ahmad.

He is the fifth elected spiritual leader — or khalifa — of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and is currently visiting the United States. I always tell my students that my peaceful understanding of Islam comes precisely from His Holiness’s leadership. From the day he was sworn into office (April 22, 2003), he has committed himself to extending a message of peace to the world.” Hush. Can you hear millions around the globe, whispering, “We’ve been waiting for you”?

Let’s go back to the challenge of finding a Muslim leader with vision, global presence, personal integrity and a track record.

Unless you were sleeping under a rock for the past decade, you know exactly how many Muslim leaders have a vision problem. Despite the Quran’s commitment to protecting all houses of worship, the Saudi grand Mufti called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula. Despite the Quran’s prohibition of religious compulsion, the mesmerizing Pakistani cleric Maudoodi preached death for the apostates. Despite the Quran’s flexible position on governance, the newly elected Egyptian leader, Morsi, isanxious to implement his brand of the Shariah Law. People, can’t you see a trend?

His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, however, exhorts Muslims worldwide to strengthen interfaith relationships, champion religious freedom and embrace the separation of church and state.

Yes, His Holiness is not the only Muslim leader rallying for peace. But he is the only leader who has an international following of millions of Muslims. In 2009, His Holiness launched a peace campaign in U.K.with the Community’s motto: “Love for all, Hatred for none.” Bearing this message, the ads decorated London’s red buses and thousands of flyers were distributed in neighborhoods. Following his lead, Ahmadiyya communities launched similar peace campaigns in GermanyAustraliaCanada and other countries. In America, all hands were on the deck when a “Muslims for Peace” campaign was launched in 2010. Young volunteers distributed more than half a million flyers, the elders sponsored hundreds of bus ads, and the scholars held dozens of interfaith symposia.

Talk of integrity. His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad is not someone who gives inflammatory statements to his internal audiences and plays peaceful in front of the cameras. His Friday sermons, privately watched by millions of his global followers, are a spiritual institution of peacemaking. Whether it’s violent reaction over Danish cartoons or the anger over Quran burnings, the Ahmadi Muslim khalifa has never instigated his members to create disorder. In 2004, His Holiness launched the annual National Peace Symposium in U.K. where government officials gather to exchange ideas on the promotion of peace. In 2009, he launched the annual Ahmadiyya Muslim Prize for the Advancement of Peace for individuals or organizations that have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the cause of peace. Watching the escalating tensions with Iran, His Holiness, has written personal letters to the Presidents of Iran, Israel, Canada and America in 2012, warning them about the threat of a nuclear third world war.

None of this is conceptually new to Ahmadi Muslim leaders though. Despite facing constitutionally backed persecution for over half a century in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Africa, the Ahmadi Muslim leaders have advocated for peace and compassion under threats and oppression. As a result, not even a single member of this community has ever been charged with an extremist act.

Last week, I was among the thousands to meet the Khalifa, His Holiness, during his visit to the United States. This week he will be meeting congressional leaders at the Capitol Hill. Many are waiting in line.

But many don’t like to lie in wait. For them I have good news. Just look at the teachings, practices, track record and the character of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and their spiritual leaders over the past century, objectively. Once done, your likely response is going to be, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

EXCERPT: Peace Primer II

Speak out clearly, pay up personally

The purpose, promise and peril of interfaith  engagement.

by Lynn Gottlieb, Rabia Terri Harris, Ken Sehested

In the early weeks of 2011, during the Arab Spring uprising, Egyptian blogger Nevine Zaki posted a photograph from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It showed a group of people bowing in the traditional style of Muslim prayer, surrounded by other people standing hand-in-hand, facing outward, as a wall of protection against hostile pro-government forces. Zaki affixed this caption: “A picture I took yesterday of Christians protecting Muslims during their prayers.”

Similar scenes—some ancient, some as recent as yesterday’s newspaper—have been arranged in a host of ways with a variety of religious identities. No religious tradition can claim a monopoly on compassionate courage. And yet such snapshots remain rare.

A recent magazine ad for a large U.S. stock brokerage firm features a stunning photograph of the Earth taken from space. Superimposed over that image is the phrase “WORLD PEACE IS GOOD.” And then the ad continues: “But finding a stock at 5 that goes to 200 is better.” This glimpse of cynicism gives us some idea of the economic and emotional forces we’re up against when we try to work for genuine peace.

If the effort to foster understanding and relationships across religious lines is to be more than a cosmopolitan hobby, if it is to become a substantial and sustainable movement, expanding the base is essential. New and renewed strategies and resources are important, as is provoking the kind of imagination that will support costly action. Both these goals require clarifying the purpose and promise, as well as the peril, of interfaith engagement.

This revised and expanded version of Peace Primer is being offered in the conviction that interfaith dialogue and collaboration are both possible and urgent. Much has already occurred, and we celebrate, remember and support those inspired individuals and organizations that have led the way. Solidarity in human dignity across apparent boundaries of separation has long been practiced by many people of conscience, in many times and places, though the phenomenon has rarely been afforded the public attention we believe it deserves. Still, plenty of documentation exists.

The purpose of interfaith conversation is not to have exotic friends or engage in literate conversation at dinner parties. The purpose of crossing these boundaries is to affirm the God of Creation, the God of Humanity, in the face of rampant efforts to debase both creation and humanity—efforts that are generally defended with reference to some divinized “greater good.” Far too often, such efforts seek to bolster themselves with religious legitimacy of some kind. Coalitions of religious adherents of every sort are therefore needed to mount resistance to the “myth of redemptive violence,” as theologian Walter Wink called it—that most enduring of human miscalculations.

The French novelist and journalist Albert Camus was speaking to a group of Christians when he said it, but the audience contains us all: “What the world expects” is that “you should speak out loud and clear . . . in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest person. [You] should get away from all abstractions and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today. We need a group of people resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.”

Besides saying no to religiously sanctioned violence, multi-faith groups also need to say yes to the policies of justice that prepare the ground for a harvest of peace, by means of institutions that serve the common good rather than the “greater good.” Such policies are forged in the very heart of religious faith. Only a politics of forgiveness and human dignity has the power to free the future from being determined by the failures of the past, to make space for hope.

Conflict mediation specialist Byron Bland has written that two truths make healthy community difficult: that the past cannot be undone, and that the future cannot be controlled. However, two counterforces are available to address these destructive tendencies: the practice of forgiveness, which has the power to change the logic of the past; and covenant-making, which creates islands of stability and reliability in a faithless, sometimes ruthless world. A third counterforce also calls out to be deployed: the exhilaration of our discovery of the usefulness of human difference.

Religious communities have unique resources to foster politically realistic alternatives to policies of vengeance and to shape civic discourse in ways that free communities and nations from cycles of violence. When faith communities actively acknowledge one another’s gifts, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

This acknowledgement is essential. For in addition to the purpose and promise of interfaith engagement, there is also a peril that must be avoided. Interfaith dialogue too often presumes that for progress to be made, distinctive faith claims must be abolished, distinctive practices muted. Part of the shadow side of modernism is its tendency to reduce everything to common denominators.

There is a kind of cultural imperialism in this purported “universalism.” Interfaith advocates have a tendency to become culture vultures, picking a little from this tradition, a little from that—whatever looks and feels good at the time. Severed from particular disciplines, historic memory and communal commitments, this kind of freeze-dried spirituality offers sugary nutrition that stimulates but does not and cannot sustain healthy institutions. Politically speaking, the result of this intellectual fickleness isolates progressives from traditional cultures of faith and from the very communities whose collective weight must be brought to bear on our wanton, promiscuous state of affairs, where vulgar enthusiasm for personal gain forever seems to trump the commonwealth.

It has been said that in a drought-stricken land it does little good to dig many shallow wells. We believe that the way forward for interfaith engagement will acknowledge at the outset that energizing interreligious collaboration does not mean homogenizing faith. Of course, that does not mean we shall remain unchanged. But we will be pushed to trust that the Center of our adoration, however that reality is named, is greater than the limits of our comprehension.

In the end, such delight and joy—some say reverence—is the only power that will sustain the risks to be endured.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, author of She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of Renewed Judaism, is coordinator, Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence, Berkeley, CA. Her book, Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, will be published by September 2012.

Chaplain Rabia Terri Harris is a teacher and student of transformational Islam. Founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship in 1994, she is president of the Association of Muslim Chaplains and a scholar in residence at the Community of Living Traditions.

Rev. Ken Sehested, author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers personal and public, is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy in Asheville, NC. An award-winning writer, he was the founding director in 1984 of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

 

“Speak up loudly, pay up personally: The purpose, the promise, and the peril of interfaith engagement” is excerpted from Peace Primer II: Quotes from Jewish, Christian and Islamic Scripture and Tradition, published in June 2012 by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (bpfna.org).

For permission to reprint this article, contact Evelyn Hanneman, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, 704.521-6051, evelyn@bpfna.org.

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