In March 2017, I was directed by two of my teachers and mentors: Dr. Bashir Aliyu Umar and Professor Salisu Shehu, to prepare a presentation that would serve as a background for discussion on Interfaith Dialogue. I was to present that at a roundtable organized by the Center for Islamic Civilization and Interfaith Dialogue (CICID), Bayero University Kano, where the respected Sheikh Dr. Bashir was serving as the pioneer Director. The idea was to discuss the essence and principles of Interfaith Dialogue (IFD), and also make a critical review of its state of the art, with a view to understanding Nigeria’s IFD environment. This would then lead to gradually developing a coherent framework for Muslim participation in interfaith and intra-faith dialogues. On 17th, the roundtable was held in the presence of carefully selected scholars and intellectuals from within and outside Kano. The first presentation was made by Malam Ibrahim Ado-Kurawa, the third by Prof. Ahmad Bello Dogarawa on Intra-faith Dialogue, and the second by me on Muslims and Interfaith Dialogue in Nigeria: Towards a Framework for Meaningful Participation.
In my presentation, I traced the recent history of IFD and how Muslim scholars and centers globally accepted it and continued to develop frameworks, review challenges and formulate approaches for making it useful as an approach to clarifying theological misconceptions, fostering peace, and presenting the beautiful teachings of Islam related to social and economic justice, good governance, fighting corruption and engendering peaceful coexistence. I briefly analyzed the Nigeria’s experience with IFD, categorized Muslim positions on it into three; rejectionist, extremist and centrist or moderate positions, before finally suggesting an agenda for engagement with it in Nigeria. This categorizing forms the basis for writing the present article.
The first position is of those who see IFD as a holistically problem-free endeavor, a project that can, and should replace all religious polemics and debates between Muslims and Christians based on what Muslims consider as reasons why Islam, not other faith, represents the final pristine message of God. For this group, IFD as it is conceived and practiced today globally and in Nigeria is all-good, and has no problem. Some of them may go the next step to blame those not involved in IFD as automatic religious fanatics whose preoccupation is to fan the embers of hate. It is not surprising to see from some of these extremist interfaith apologists, certain shocking compromises, including the need to stop talking about certain fundamentals of religion; things of for-granted knowledge in the Islamic faith (ma’lum min al-din bi al-darurah). It is not uncommon also for some of these advocates to try by all means to scout for justification from Islamic textual sources on whatever may be presented as part of IFD. Many of those in this group are neither grounded in the knowledge of Islamic fundamentals (usul) and branches (furu’), nor any reasonable experience of participating in Islamic work through recognized, in-the-field Islamic organizations. They rather found themselves in it through some “opportunities” of invitation by colleagues who feel they can benefit materially from the interfaith business. Importantly, however, not everyone in this category is ignorant of Islam. But just as there are extremists in everything, there can be some who have chosen to go to the extreme in compromising certain Islamic fundamentals in order to achieve certain personal motives through IFD. Whatever the reason for the IFD extremism, I can say that most of the problems that people make reference to vis-à-vis IFD are connected to what this category, with all its branches, represents.
The second group consists of those who call for a total rejection of IFD; the rejectionists. Many in this group do that sincerely out of a genuine love for preserving the true Islamic teachings and the need to protect the Islamic faith from the calculated agendas of its enemies. They fear that IFD can lead to many compromises of Islamic fundamentals. They will often insist that “the underlying purpose is to create one religion for everyone”. They trace the origin of contemporary IFD to the Vatican, and conclude that it is a well-orchestrated Christian agenda for neutralizing and diluting Islamic consciousness which must be rejected in totality. They often do that based on what they know of the laxity of those who approve everything in the name of IFD. Many of those in this group, however, know little about IFD. They have hardly read widely about the concept, or may have read what has been written against the unification of religions which they confuse with IFD.
One sees clear misconceptions and misrepresentation of facts from many antagonists of IFD, such as the claim that all proponents of, and participants in IFD are doing so with the intention of collapsing all religions into a hybrid religion of some sort. One also observes in the ongoing debate on the matter that most commentators have read nothing on it, but rely on certain short videos of some scholars whose verdicts on the matter are clothed with unsubstantiated assertions.
Not all antagonists of IFD are completely uninformed of its true nature. There are a few who have read well about it, but have had some bad experience with some “overzealous” interfaith dialoguers, and based on that they generalize and condemn the entire endeavor. Their concerns may be genuine. But their reasoning may not be plausible; because one or three people have gone too far, exceeding the limits, then all have to stop it, even as dozens, if hundreds of others are doing it within limits. They want the baby, the birth water and the birth tub all to be thrown away. All the many gains of the IFD approach to sharing Islamic message should be sacrificed only because of its few pains.
One would be forced to mention here that the greatest reference against IFD by many social media commentators in the debate is the short clip of the late Sheikh Auwal Albany Zaria (may Allah forgive him and bless all his good deeds) where he raised some rather controversial and highly contestable claims against some prominent champions of IFD in Nigeria. No one can deny the deep knowledge and multidimensional contributions of the late Sheikh towards Islamic propagation in Nigeria. That notwithstanding, certainly whoever is aware of the IFD literature and environment globally and in Nigeria, and whoever knows well most of the people he mentioned and the kind of comments he directed at Ustaz Abubakar Siddiq Deedat, Ustaz Nurudeen Lemu, His Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto, etc. will no doubt be forced to disagree with the late Sheikh and consider the claims as part of his human weaknesses which must be put into proper contexts. Sheikh Albany was a great scholar. But he was human. His major sources on the topic of IFD are from the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, a country that has no experience of indigenous non-Muslims living alongside Muslims. Plus, most of what was written there are works that discuss unification of religions, not IFD. One clearly sees that confusion in his comment on the matter, may Allah have mercy on him.
We can now go to the category of the centrist, moderate and balanced school who accept IFD as one of the various approaches available for sharing the good teachings and pristine message of Islam with the followers of other religions. Their view is that Islam is essentially pro-dialogue and that dialogue is fundamentally Islamic. The Prophet (may peace be upon him) dialogued with the Christians of Najran. Many righteous predecessors (salaf) also dialogued with other faith communities. For them, Muslims and Islam stand to gain a lot by engaging in interfaith, intercultural and inter-civilizational dialogues. They promote IFD, even as they are unapologetic towards any thought, action or program that will undermine any established fundamental or symbol of Islam. They are guided by the Qur’an and Sunnah in accepting what to do and deciding what not to do in IFD. Their goal is to represent Islam through peaceful conversation in safe spaces.
This group acknowledges the fact that there may be, actually there are, mistakes and concerns about the way IFD is conducted in some quarters, and there are self-appointed unqualified champions intruding into the field to represent Islam. Yes, there may be hidden agenda from some non-Muslims who engage in IFD. But Muslims are not less intelligent than whosever cooked that agenda, and that so long as qualified Muslims will go with a defined framework, Islam stands to gain from the endeavor. After all, even if the qualified ones abstain, the unqualified will be there and the rest will be an unpalatable history. This group believes also that the misuse and abuse of what is in itself good and worthwhile can never suffice as a reason to completely render it useless or even impermissible. Generally, they hold, the gains of IFD far outweigh the challenges if done properly. This is supported by verifiable data. They often argue that it will be wrong to assume for example that Muslims would discard jihad because there are Boko Harams and ISIS’s that often hijack and abuse it. Doing so is tantamount to prohibiting all medications because they have side effects.
This group partakes in IFD dialogue as an approach to bridge building and mending fences between Muslims and other faith communities. IFD is a means to reducing anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia. Through IFD, they have succeeded in forming peace building alliances, clarifying misconceptions around jihad, hijab, Sharī’ah, interfaith marriages, socio-economic justice and the fundamentals of Islamic beliefs. They engage in it with the intent of presenting to others Islam as a beautiful religion that has answers to all questions; social, economic, political, spiritual and theological. For them, IFD is a means of engagement with others that has different purpose and procedures from comparative religion which takes the approach of pinpointing what Muslims believe are the weaknesses of other religions as represented by their scriptures, belief systems and practices. They believe that da’wa in general is a multidimensional endeavor which involves aspects of preaching, correcting misconceptions, pinpointing the interpolations of other religions, discussing commonalities and differences among others, and that none of these dimensions of da’awa is sufficient; they are not mutually exclusive. Da’wa as a holistic project of sharing Islam with others and defending Islam from its antagonists require division of labor, with certain qualified Muslims representing Islam in each of these dimensions. On the basis of this, they represent Islam in the IFD dimension of sharing and defending Islam, while others may take other dimensions. Relying on the Qur’anic formula of “nor should the believers all go forth together” (wa ma kanal mu’minuna li yanfiru kaffah) (Qur’an 9:122)
They accept the fact that there are excesses from some unqualified or even ill-intentioned Muslims who engage in IFD and do harm to the religion. But they see that as a challenge, a side effect that requires concerted efforts to address. In my CICID presentation of 2017, I highlighted some of these challenges and recommended that qualified Muslim scholars and intellectuals who participate in some IFD related activities such as Dr Bashir Aliyu Umar, Sheikh Muhammad Bin Uthman, Sheikh Imam Abdurrahman Ahmad, Prof Isa Muhammad Maishanu, Sheikh Muhammad Kabir Haruna Gombe, Sheikh Bala Lau, Dr. Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, Prof Salisu Shehu, Dr. Ibrahim Disina, Prof Ahmad Bello Dogarawa, Dr. Mansur Isa Yelwa, Sheikh Abubakar Siddiq Deedat, Ustaz Nuru Lemu, Prof Mukhtar Bunza among others who have decades of IFD experience should hold roundtables where they would develop a comprehensive framework for Muslim participation in the endeavor. They should define what to do in IFD, how to do it and by whom. They should develop the minimum requirement for an IFD Muslim participant. After this, training materials should then be developed. Relevant organizations like the CICID, the Sultan Foundation for Peace and Development (SFPD), the Da’wa Institute (DIN) Minna and the Da’wa Coordinating Council of Nigeria (DCCN), would then continue to give training for carefully selected intelligent young Muslims who will be initiated into that project with a clear direction. Those already in it should also be given sufficient on-the-dialogue trainings to ensure they are on track. The training package should have sufficient dosage of fundamentals of Islam, uncompromisable fundamentals, as well as clear dos and don’ts of the exercise. With all this, we should never see this as the only approach to engaging with other religions. Those engaged in interfaith polemical debates (what is known here as comparative religion), and those in the exercise of calling non-Muslims to Islam through other da’wa approaches should be encouraged and supported. More people should even be trained with the same kind of seriousness to fill-in the blank spaces in all aspects of Islamic propagation, so that Islam will be fully represented.
In essence, like any worthwhile endeavor, the tendency is there to have people who partake in IFD with clean minds, clear vision of what they want to achieve and are ready to unlearn mistaken concepts and practices, learn the correct principles, procedures and actions that lead to success in that exercises. There is also the possibility of those who engage in it with insufficient know-how or with ulterior motives and may be ready to misuse and abuse the business for certain personal gains. But this is the case with important Islamic teachings like da’wa and jihad, among others. And because some people or groups –such as Boko Haram for instance – do misuse and abuse jihad or da’wa, it will never be reasonable to call for a total closing ceremony of da’wa or jihad as the only way out. What is needed is to separate the grains from the chaffs, throw away the chaffs and use the grains for delicious meals. IFD is regarded as another approach to da’wa that involves engaging the followers of other religions in mutual discussions with a view to making each other understand the cherished values of the faith of the other and fostering harmonious coexistence and interfaith action against common ills bedeviling the society such as corruption, violent conflicts and socio-economic injustice. But as it is practiced today, it has challenges which are however surmountable. Since it has become a global and Nigerian reality, it will be suicidal and a waste of time and energy to begin to call for its total discard. What is needed is partaking in it with open eyes by qualified persons based on well-crafted guidelines. And as they say, a stitch in time saves nine!
14th Ramadan, 1443 (15th April, 2022)