Interacting with people of other beliefs broadens our minds and doesn’t threaten our faith, writes Meaghan Brittini.
In September, a school in Lahore, Pakistan, decided to add a comparative religions course to their curriculum.[i] Rumours spread that the school had replaced the Islamiat, or Islamic studies course, with the new comparative religions course (it hadn’t; Islamic studies remained a part of the curriculum). Nevertheless, the whole fiasco ended with media drama and the school eventually cancelled the course.
I wondered why it seemed like some Muslims were so reactionary towards the thought of simply learning about other religions?
Participating in interfaith activities was something that had always been essential for my spiritual growth in Islam. For most of my university years, I was a practising and visible Muslim who was actively involved with a multifaith organisation on campus. At the same time, I majored in Islamic studies, but as a part of my curriculum I was required to take many other complementary courses for a well-rounded perspective. Such modules covered Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even secular philosophies that critiqued religion and questioned the existence of God.
While I had many positive experiences in both of those pursuits, trying to engage members of my broader Muslim community in interfaith activities was, as I found, much more challenging.
There was the time, for example, when I organised an “Open Musalla Day” on campus, where students could enter the prayer space that was otherwise reserved for Muslims. Here they could have a cup of tea and openly pose questions about Islam.
The event was almost spoilt when an anonymous community member left an angry letter posted on the door. This letter proclaimed that there was “no interfaith dialogue in Islam” and that rather than allowing students into the prayer space, “non-Muslims can read the Quran and convert, or else remain our enemies”.
Or the times when I’d find the Muslim student groups at campus-wide intercultural events trying to rigorously debate guests into the corner. They would hand out generic pamphlets on Islam hoping to inspire new converts, rather than becoming a part of the celebration of diversity. (And, to be honest, should we really be reducing Islam to a flimsy, bullet-point pamphlet?)
I came to the conclusion that my Muslim friends perhaps weren’t as interested as I was in reaching out to people of other faiths. But when I read the story of the school in Lahore, I began to fear that it just might be considered blasphemous by many to engage in interreligious dialogue.
The way that popular Islamic media handles other religions reflects that sentiment. I find that the most accessible resources we have on the topic of other religions (such as what is posted online), are often attempts to disprove, belittle or critique them.
Take for example the popular videos of Muslim figures or scholars “winning” debates against Christian scholars. Or the multiple books printed by Muslim publishers that talk about other religions from the point of view of Islam and why they are faulty. These books are not written from the point of view of the religion and what its believers believe – making them the same type of books we would likely discredit should the tables be turned.
Or take the way that stories of Muslim converts are usually focused not on the subject’s spiritual or emotional journey, but on their affirmation of Islam as “the best” truth.
While Islam may be the unquestioned Truth for Muslims, the other estimated 5.5 billion of the world’s inhabitants we interact with (who are our friends, neighbours, colleagues and employees) find their truths through different means. Although “different”, we may quickly realise that we have more in common than we think. After all, being a good person and striving towards a greater good in the world is a common denominator across the world’s major religions, despite whatever language is used to describe it.
Sharing our similarities and learning to appreciate and respect one another doesn’t mean our own faith will be threatened. Rather, it may help to reaffirm them even more. Likewise, there shouldn’t be any spiritual fulfilment to be found in the process of debating against someone else’s beliefs, either. Surely, Islam doesn’t need to “win” anything.
The principal of the Lahore school summed up these same thoughts in a statement released after much public opposition to her decision:
Islam teaches us to broaden our minds, not close them; in fact, it asks us to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Learning and understanding other religions and cultures will not and should not threaten our personal beliefs, but rather should strengthen them. We staunchly believe that this course helps develop better citizens, informed Muslims and enlightened Pakistanis who are secure about their identity.[ii]
In a world where we are more often shaken and divided over our differences than anything else, and where this often results in violent or aggressive confrontations between “us” and “them”, informed and enlightened global citizens may just be what the world needs.