originally published on Issue 41, November 2016
We live in a world where diversity is increasing and much more cross-cultural-religious relations are emerging.
Unfortunately, many people think this diversity is a threat because their understanding of their own identity is based on what they are not, rather than what they are.
It was easy in the past, to say to people, you belong to this particular group. What does it mean to be Christian? It is easier to explain it by just saying you are not Muslim or Hindu… Likewise, as a Muslim one can just simply say I am neither a Christian nor a Jew.
The same applies to our national identities, our nationality for example, which may prevent us from mixing with our neighbour from a different nationality. This kind of mentality is not going to work in today’s diverse world and certainly, will not work in the future characterised by an ever-increasing level of diversity.
We are in need of developing a better understanding of our identity based on the positive things that we possess. We can be proud of our identity and with a better understanding of who we are, we should be able to open spaces for others. So instead of making your identity exclusive we should develop an inclusive understanding of it, keeping the differences. You are not going to compromise on the differences, actually, these differences are very valuable and they make the whole mosaic more beautiful.
We have to understand ourselves as parts of a larger unity, like the different parts of a body. Sometimes I use this example: Every part of our body is special. They are all different with a different function. They don’t believe that they can survive by disconnecting themselves from the rest of the body. They need to be connected to other parts and can thrive if the entire body (unity) thrives.
You can be proud of being Christian, Muslim, Jew or someone from any other faith. Be proud of your nationality but not at the cost of excluding others or saying negative things about others.
This, in my opinion, is what we understand from God’s plan. God has created us in different races and nations, not to fight or create negative ideas about each other but to come to a mutual recognition of each other. “O mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and We made you nations and tribes that you may know one another.”(Qur’an 49:13)
Imagine if we were all like robots, mass produced human beings who all looked the same, we would just need fingerprints to recognise who is who and that would not be beautiful. Diversity is really beautiful but we should understand we are not going to assimilate each other. We should keep our own identity but we can have a better understanding of other identities if we move towards establishing unity.
I think this is what we all have to learn. I don’t think any culture, tradition or community can say I know this completely, as we are all just trying to learn little by little. What is very destructive in this process is the use of force. If a community is forced to open up to be assimilated and integrated, then it goes into a defensive mode. If this happens it is the worst time for building relations. So people should feel comfortable, confident and secure, then they can open up. This is a beautiful thing that we can see in Scotland, that people feel secure about their faith and culture, so they can open up. I hope this remains and becomes stronger.
On interfaith activities
One of the most important initiatives for interfaith dialogue is to have a clear understanding of our role. Unfortunately, many of us see ourselves, be it as individual or faith denominations, as the centre of the world. Let me give you an example from mystical literature. It is said that once a person wanted to cross a river. The water was absolutely clean but his horse refused to move. The rider wanted to cross and he was trying to force the horse to move.
A sage was passing by and said he knew the solution. He put his hand in the river, shook it and made the water muddy. The horse started moving across the river. The man thought it was magic because without forcing the horse, the sage had made it move.
The sage said it was not magic. When the water seemed clean and clear it was like a mirror. The horse was seeing himself in the mirror and enjoying it, so it was not moving. If you want to move forward, stop looking at yourself and look at the destination.
I think many of us in religion just see ourselves. We have to see God in religion and through God everything and every being. So I think this is a constant spiritual exercise for us. We are on a very long journey to move away from the position in which we think we are at the centre of the world to the position where we want to get closer to the real centre of the world, God, who is the Lord of all nations and all creatures.
On the issue of the environment
There have been many initiatives. We had a very good project many years ago when I was on my sabbatical in London. We had a good project with Hythrope College (London), under the title Faith in Creation. Over a period of one year, people from all Abrahamic traditions sat together and discussed problems and perspectives. We also had conferences with published works.
All religious leaders have concerns about this issue. Pope Francis issued a very important document about the environment and many of our great jurists have also issued many verdicts about the necessity of the preservation of our environment.
This is another area that if we involve religion and spirituality it can be very productive. No one should underestimate the power that religion has in motivating people. We religious people should look at nature as the manifestation of God. In every flower, in every drop of water, you can see the signature of God and therefore you would not dare to waste it and consume irresponsibly.
We have examples of our great scholars who were very hesitant in killing even a mosquito or a fly even though it may have been bothering them. They believed they are creatures of God and the maximum they could do is to divert them out of the room.
If we have that care and love towards nature that religion gives us we would be much more inclined towards protecting nature and we would work to leave this world in better health. The Qur’an tells us that one of the reasons God put us on this Earth is because He wants us to improve it, not to ruin or destroy it as is, unfortunately, the case today.
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: