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Interfaith Engagement And Reciprocity

December 30, 2012 in Islam with 0 Comments

The announcement of some perennial publicity seekers that a Georgian Christian bishop had been invited to deliver the Jumu‘ah sermon to a (thoroughly mixed) congregation in Oxford failed to shock me because I had (half jokingly) declared long before that this would be their logical next step. (And not all logic is good logic.)

Rather, it reminded me of my own experience being invited by Christian friends to deliver a sermon at their Edinburgh church, which is also a hub of positive engagement in the city and beyond. I decided to honour their kind invitation and speak according to my own beliefs, respecting their practices without joining in their form of worship.

My theme was the Golden Rule, which has everything to do with empathy and reciprocity. Naturally, I wondered at the time: what would happen if we were to invite a Christian to deliver our khutbah? While to me it was an obvious impossibility, that audience of mine could be justified in thinking that I ought to return the favour and offer my minbar to their ministers.

On the contrary, that assumption would be to overlook the differences between our respective beliefs and practices. Perhaps the status of the sermon in each religion is completely different. Perhaps our approaches to validity of acts of worship defy comparison. In short, there will be things that work for one group and not the other, and vice-versa.

Abrahamic Faiths

On a theoretical level, it could be said that Islam is able to accommodate Jewish and Christian communities in a unique way due to their acknowledgement in our book as People of Scripture, with the rights corresponding to this designation. In practice, the matter is not one-way because we encounter warm and open attitudes to our beliefs in our engagement with people of these and other faiths. (I am speaking here of people who belong squarely to one religion or another.)

I have noticed that it is now common to hear reference to the “Prophet Muhammad” even from those who do not follow him (peace be upon him). Is it an admission that he is a Prophet? If so, does the word mean the same as it does for Muslims? More likely, it is a way of showing respect to our beliefs and customs in a way with which the speaker feels comfortable.

But where does the Muslim draw the line in responding in kind to such a gesture? For Jesus (peace be upon him) the designation as “Prophet” is shared with Christians but this term is less than central to their discourse. Yet we would clearly not venture to say “Lord” as it would contravene our creed; or at least that is how it would be understood.

If that is so, then what of other titles that imply a commitment to some underlying theology? We may research the meanings of titles such as “Pope” and “Dalai Lama” and, assuming that they contain no meaning inherently problematic to our beliefs, we may understand them simply as designations for the leaders of particular religious communities. As for appending “His Holiness”, that is another matter. Can I really expect others to affirm the holiness (beyond inherent human sanctity) of my own religion’s figures?

Still, when we find Muslims using these terms, we must not rush to misinterpret. Most likely, it was done unthinkingly, or they intended something other than the most problematic meaning. I learned this lesson from some narrow-minded people passing judgement on Muslims using the term “Abrahamic faiths”. Granted, we have no doubt that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) had only one faith, but all that is meant is that these three communities trace their spiritual heritage to that Patriarch.

Our interfaith engagement is very much about getting to know one another (as the Quran affirms, 49:13). In the process, we also get to know ourselves. We might make mistakes along the way, but together we will learn about each other’s boundaries and our own.

I recall a noble event that took place some years ago: a peace march from the trident base at Faslane to the Scottish Parliament, via a prominent church. Religious leaders were asked to come together to wash the feet of the marchers. Somehow it didn’t sit right with me, though I couldn’t see anything inherently wrong with such an action. I considered saying something about Muslims generally washing their own feet, but I was informed that the Rabbi had gotten in there first:

“It’s a bit Christian isn’t it?”

By Sohaib Saeed of 1st Ethical Trust

Sohaib Saeed writes on behalf of the 1st Ethical Charitable Trust, which encourages British Muslims to benefit wider society, thereby fostering improved social and religious cohesion.

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