Since 9/11, no one can doubt the urgency of our need to understand the Islamic world. But even if that tragedy had not occurred, Christians would still be called upon to learn about the faith and practice of the one billion or more Muslims with whom we share this planet. Both the Christian and Muslim traditions trace their origins back to the faith of Abraham; consequently, both worship the same one God and share many of the same values. Our similarities, as much as our differences, summon us to a mutual understanding. The path to such an understanding is known as the way of dialogue.
In the two Texas counties of Tarrant and Dallas, there are over 200,000 Muslims from all around the world. Some are Arabs, but only one in five of all Muslims is from the Middle East. Many are from Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh (the three largest Muslim countries in the world), and India. Others come from Africa and Europe, and many thousands are African Americans. All large cities of Texas have mosques and Muslim community centers; even rural Texas has increasing numbers of Muslim inhabitants. Our dialogue can begin here - with neighbors in our own community.
In the spring of 2002, a class of more than 30 students at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University devoted a semester to studying Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. Under the guidance of their professors, one a Christian and one a Muslim, they listened to visiting speakers, attended services in local mosques, and spoke with Muslims from many walks of life. As a culmination of this transformative experience, the class formulated a set of guidelines on Christian-Muslim dialogue, which they now offer to members of churches located in the Metroplex and throughout Texas. It is their prayer that through dialogue, Christians and Muslims everywhere will affirm together a wider vision of community and a shared resolve that religion must never be an instrument of hatred and division.
Principles of Christian-Muslim dialogue
1. Dialogue invites us to come together as people, not as belief systems. It acknowledges that each religious tradition is pluralistic within itself, and realizes that each dialogue partner speaks from a particular religious perspective that cannot - and does not - represent all adherents of that faith. Dialogue also recognizes that each participant is located within a particular cultural, political, and economic perspective and inevitably brings particular loyalties, commitments, and preconceptions to the relationship. Through dialogue, we get to know one another as individuals.
2. Dialogue, which is characterized by courtesy and respect, is most productive when its participants are considerate, open-minded, and genuine in their desire to learn from the other partners. Each tradition's scripture, beliefs, and practices deserve our respect for having brought countless diverse people into a relationship with God.
3. Dialogue is enhanced if participants have engaged in a preliminary investigation of the other faith tradition, as well as in an informed and self-critical reflection upon their own faith identity. We must come prepared to the best of our ability, for dialogue enjoins us to listen with and speak from the heart as much as the head, to be open, vulnerable, honest, and sensitive to feelings of frustration or offense.
4. Dialogue enables us to confront inherited preconceptions. It asks us to remember that Christians and Muslims share a history of both fruitful exchange and peace as well as of misunderstanding and fierce conflict. In dialogue, we are mindful that ambiguous situations sometimes can be misinterpreted or misrepresented. Dialogue deliberately seeks to identify and dispel common stereotypes and inherited misconceptions based on misinformation.
5. Dialogue recognizes that in order to reach a clear understanding, we must pay attention to vocabulary. Some words have specialized meaning within a religious system; the meaning of others varies over time or within certain contexts or between cultures. Dialogue entails a careful clarification of our use of language.
6. Dialogue asks us first to understand, and only then to be understood. In dialogue, we listen in order to understand the other's point of view and seek to understand each person as they understand themselves. We seek to understand each religious system "from within" or on its own terms, while temporarily setting aside our own critical presuppositions.
7. Dialogue is enhanced by each participant's strong faith convictions. In a context of courteous listening and mutual trust, we can offer an authentic expression of our own personal faith. Dialogue involves a humble and sincere exchange of information about each participant's faith journey and sustaining religious tradition.
8. Dialogue seeks to share, challenge, and be challenged. Insisting one's own religious tradition's superiority inevitably undermines productive dialogue. We can be truly respectful of the integrity of our dialogue partner's religious identity only if we avoid all attempts at proselytizing.
9. Dialogue can occur on many levels besides that of theological discussion. For example, it is enriched through interactions of friendship and hospitality, working together in community projects and celebrations, and making common cause to solve social problems. Dialogue is most vital and effective when we pray together, open our homes to each other, and actually share our lives together.
10. Dialogue should be transformative, opening the windows of the mind and spirit to a broader vision of God's presence in the world.
Dialogue in practice
Here are some practical suggestions for interfaith dialogue meetings.
1. Fair and thoughtful planning, done together and well in advance, can help ensure that both Christians and Muslims feel comfortable and welcome at meetings. A skillful and knowledgeable moderator, as well as a neutral environment, may smooth initial encounters, for it is important to encourage real discussion and interaction among participants. Dialogue is enriched by wide-ranging participation, including persons of various ages, socioeconomic levels, types of spirituality, and cultures.
2. Anticipating that we will encounter both similarities and differences, dialogue recognizes that mutual acceptance and understanding, not absolute agreement, is the main goal. Initially, dialogue should focus on common features and similarities, without minimizing differences, while working to build the trust that will allow candid discussion of those differences. Issues for early discussions might include the five pillars of Islam and their Christian counterparts or concerns related to social justice, ecology, or the challenges of secularism. A host of other issues will raise themselves in the early meetings.
3. We should have realistic expectations about our meetings. Dialogue is a long-term and ongoing process of building community, not a few shared encounters. Still, the journey can be taken only one step at a time. All participants should be encouraged to make an active and steadfast commitment to walking together toward understanding and peace.