The Ethics of Dialogue and Diversity
His Eminence’s speech at The Islamic Conference
Buffalo, New York
23–27 May 1997
In the Name of God,
the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
All praise be to God, the Lord of all worlds, and may His peace and blessings be upon Prophet Muhammad, his family members and companions.
Brothers and sisters, all people are God’s dependants. He created them from one person, but with diverse characters. Their origin is one, namely earth. Their minds can conceive distant horizons and deep insight, which cannot be confined except by Almighty God. He says:
“And among His Signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Verily, in that are signs for those who have knowledge.” T.Q., 30:22.
The diversity that God created should not be a reason for enmity or conflict. Intelligent and wise people can make this diversity a starting point for complementariness and cooperation in the interest of good and truth. This fact, which was best practised in the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), should be the source of our agreement and unity.
Today’s world is full of different religions and ideologies. On the Islamic level too, we have many different groups and movements in Muslim countries and among the Muslim communities in the West. However, have Muslims been able to learn the ways of cooperation, dialogue and understanding despite their differences of opinion?
The painful situation that we see today in Afghanistan, Algeria and other Muslim countries reflects the bitter fact that the relationships between the Islamic movements are not based on the dialogue and understanding that were followed by early righteous Muslims. The companions of Prophet Muhammad were transformed, after him, into dynamic schools that spread knowledge all over the places Islam had reached. Though, sometimes, they had different fatwas (official religious opinions) due to diversity of interpretative abilities, they succeeded in maintaining respect and fraternity and in realising the means for their cooperation and brotherhood.
Lady A’isha (the Prophet’s wife) would many times criticise the companions’ fatwas and express her own opinions. Imam Al-Suyouti wrote a book called Ayn Al- Isaba, in which he gathered Lady A’isha’s opinions, which were different from those of many companions, such as Abu Huraira, Ibn Abbas, Abuddarda and others. This diversity of opinion was no more than a dialogue to seek truth and never had any shades of enmity, hatred or mistrust.
When we review the companions’ lives, we find it a garden of beautiful different flowers. They each had their own opinion and achievement without any dispute or discord between them.
Uthman bin Affan, the third caliph of the Muslims, used to lead the Eid prayers (prayers at the beginning of the two main Muslim festivals) and then give the Eid sermon. However, when he found that many people just prayed and left without listening to the sermon, he thought it was not a good scheme. So he ordered the Eid prayer be postponed to the end of the sermon. When Abu Thar, one of the Prophet’s companions, heard of that while fulfilling his duty in defending one of the Muslim borders, he got angry and declared that Uthman was wrong and that the Prophet used to start with the Eid prayer not with the sermon.
However, when the Festival of Adha (sacrifice) came, Abu Thar himself ordered that the sermon be given before the Eid prayer, exactly as Uthman did. People expressed their surprise saying, ‘Did you not criticise Uthman when he did so?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Abu Thar, ‘but this is better than dissension.’
What fine words sum up the companions’ understanding of unity! Muslims maintained this religious order for a while then reversed it later on.
Dear brothers and sisters, historically, Muslims in most countries of the Muslim world have followed four major schools of thought. They used to respect and give excuses for one another. The Shafi’is, for example, would say, ‘Our opinion is this, but the Hanafis’ opinion is different.’ The Malikis said likewise. They all lived an atmosphere of love, affection and fairness, which reflected the social and civilised consciousness and excellent education and upbringing they received from Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
You will not find a Shafi’i (a follower of Imam Shafi’i’s school) but respecting Imam Abu Hanifah (founder of the Hanafi school), and you will not find a Hanafi but respecting Imam Malik (founder of the Maliki school) despite the different opinions of these schools in major and minor issues, of which the books of jurisprudence are full.
In addition to the four major schools of thought in Islam, Islamic jurisprudence has been enriched by the efforts of other great scholars such as Imam Al-Tabari, Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq, Imam Al-Awza’i and other great imams who, through their interpretative abilities, provided Muslims with a precious intellectual heritage.
Maybe the only exception to this intellectual freedom in Islam was that dark era in which Al-Mu’tazila (a Muslim theological school) controlled some Abbasid Caliphs urging them to ruthlessly suppress the followers of opposing schools of thought and resist any opinion that contradicted theirs. Thus, the Muslim global community over history has known how to benefit from this juristic diversity and how to deduce from it the rulings and solutions needed for new issues.
With regard to those movements which rejected their opponents and accused them of disbelief and insisted on one way of understanding and implementing religious texts, they had been cast into the dark side and named Al-Khawarij, which means the dissenters. These people kept their method till they had established their own doctrine and jurisprudence in which they declared that killing their opponents and taking their property was lawful even if they were among the most righteous ones.
Dear brothers and sisters, we have to seek today the means for our unity and cooperation, but we should not build this unity on the basis of ignoring others and rejecting them or freezing people’s minds and asking them to approve our prejudgments. Our religious duty requires us to unify our efforts and hearts so as to serve our religion and meet its noble objectives. We should all meet: the Sufi Muslims with the Salafis, the interpreters and their opponents (two schools of theology), the Zahiriyya and the other jurists, and the Sunnis and Shiites, just as we used to do during our history, which is full of live experience and shining with constructive and purposeful dialogue.
It is useful in this regard to remind ourselves of the following points.
1. Sincerity and devotion to Almighty God in our ideas, intentions and deeds, and using as a motto of our dialogue: ‘My Lord! You are my aim, and pleasing You is my goal.’
2. Cooperating in serving the Muslim global community and exerting the best efforts and abilities for its crucial issues. Almighty God says:
“Help one another in righteousness and piety, but do not help one another in sins and transgression.” T.Q., 5:2.
3. Cooperating on common points, and exchanging advice on different ones.
4. There are no differences in the basic issues, and the difference in the minor ones is an intellectual diversity, which often provides ease and mercy to Muslims. So we should not criticise scholars for their interpretative opinions or fatwas in the area of jurisprudence.
5. Distancing ourselves from exaggeration, extremism and rigidity or petrifaction. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, ‘Make things easy for people and do not make them difficult. Give glad tidings to people and do not repulse them (not make them run away from Islam by being harsh, stern or otherwise).’ Sahih Al-Bukhari.
6. Reflecting on opponents’ opinions with objectivity and deliberation.
7. Arguing with others in the best ways. Almighty God says:
“And debate with them in the most dignified manner. Verily, your Lord knows best those who have gone astray from His path, and those who are guided.” T.Q., 16:125.
8. In dialogue, there is not a ruler and a ruled, nor a judge and a culprit. Two people came to a debate. One said to the other, ‘Do you really like debating?’ The other replied, ‘Yes, but on condition that you do not get angry, protest, get astonished or give a verdict, that you do not make your view as a proof in itself and that we make truth our goal.’
9. Almighty God’s address to His servants is that of the Absolute Master whose commands and words cannot be rejected. Yet, He mentions in His Book many examples of dialogue between Himself and His servants to show us the importance of dialogue in reaching truth and following it.
10. The Muslim State and its political authority, from the time of the Prophet until today, has witnessed many periods of weakness and strength, and we notice that the stronger the Muslim State, the more active the dialogue.
11. Committing ourselves to the opinions of ancestors, scholars and traditional teachers despite their contradictions with textual and mental evidence is one of the basic reasons for failure in dialogue and missing the point.
Ibn Al-Qayyim, a prominent ancient scholar once issued a fatwa which contradicted his sheikh’s opinion. When some people reproached him for doing so, he said, ‘I love Ibn Taymiyyah (his sheikh), but I love truth more.’
12. The oneness and uniqueness of truth does not mean that there is only one way to reach it or one way to express it. That is why diversity in ways and means that do not affect the essence of truth or distort it is not always rejected.
Finally, I hope that Muslims realise the meaning of this verse:
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of God (the Holy Qur’an), and be not divided among yourselves.” T.Q. 3:103
and that they take the Holy Qur’an as a light that unifies their word.
I conclude my speech by looking forward to a day in which a comprehensive Islamic meeting is held under the banner of the Qur’anic verse that says:
“Do not say to the one who greets you with peace (telling you that he is a Muslim, even by word), ‘You are not a believer!’” T.Q. 4:94.
All praise and thanks be to God, the Lord of the creation
(T.Q. = Translation of the meanings of the Holy Qur’an)
(pbuh = May Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, and may Allah exalt his mention and raise his position more and more)