|Supremacy of each tradition and infallibility of sacred texts|
Christians and Muslims who believe in the cataclysmic end to history as recorded in their sacred texts believe only one group will be saved. The first thing that will occur under the rule of the Mahdi is the conversion of the whole world to Islam. The followers of all other religions will embrace Islam and profess faith in one God, just as He has said in the Qur'an: "…to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly and unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned" (3:82).
For Christians, the second coming of Christ signals a period of rapture for the believer but tribulation for non-believer. Those who have not accepted Christ as the Savior of the world will be left behind, and, if not converted, will ultimately perish. According to the Christian faith, the establishment of this Divine kingdom on earth is the great theme of the Bible.
The call of the Gospel is to participation with Christ in that kingdom. He comes to reward his followers, and to assert his authority throughout the earth, "for the nation and kingdom that will not serve him shall perish; they shall be utterly wasted" (Isaiah 60:12). The establishment of Christ as the undisputed Savior is best established the passage in John where Jesus states: "I am the way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).
In the apocalyptic texts of Matthew, we see Christ encouraging his disciples to spread the Good News of the gospel ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19) and ultimately separating the believer from the non-believer and ("And before Him shall be gathered all nations. And he shall separate them as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats." (Matthew 25:32).
An attitude of supremacy and inerrancy regarding the texts of each tradition permeates each faith as well. Muslims acknowledge the divine attributes of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures but maintain that the Qur'an stands apart in that it has remain pure and unaltered through the centuries. In his book, "Our Belief," His Holiness Ayatullahelozma Makarem Shirazi states: "We believe that, for the guidance of man, God sent down several divine books, among which we may name: the Sohof, given to Noah; the Law, given to Moses; the Gospel, given to Jesus; and the Qur'an, given to Mohammad.
Unfortunately, through long elapses of time, many of the scriptures have been tampered with and altered to some extent by the interference of ignorant and unauthorized people, resulting in the replacement of some incorrect and immoral ideas. Among these as an exception is the Glorious Qur'an which has remain unaltered and is exactly the same as it was; and it has always been shining like the bright sun, throughout the ages and the nations, alighting hearts."
Not surprisingly, there are Christians who support the notion of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. One Christian apologist writes, "Since God is truth (John 3:33, Romans 3:4), what is breathed out by God, must also be true (John 17:17) and infallible. Due to the infallible character of God (Titus 1:2), the Son (John 14:6) and the Holy Spirit (1 John 5:6,7), the Scripture which is inspired by God is also inerrant in every aspect (Matt 22:43-45, Matt 22:32, and Gal 3:16). The Old Testament also attests the inerrancy of the Bible. The word of the Lord is flawless (Psalms 12:6), it is eternal and stands firm (Psalms 119:89), and that every word of God is flawless (Proverbs 30:5-6)."
How Christians and Muslims understand the texts and prophecies of their respective traditions is important because they can influence the ways in which they interpret issues such as war and peace, the environment, and social justice.
For example, if followers in both traditions believe that war and chaos are necessary to usher in end times, why would they work for peace between nations? This is an important question for those participating in interfaith dialogue around the globe but takes on an especially important significance in current US-Iran relations. The Shi'ia emphasis on the return of Imam Madhi has led some in the West, and specifically in the United States, to speculate that Iran's government may be attempting to bring about war to hasten the Mahdi's appearance. Of course, such speculations are antithetical to the teachings of Mahdism which emphasize justice and equity for all of mankind.
Embracing a plurality of perspectives
Over the centuries, there have been few religious leaders who have possessed the patience or the courage to learn about the religion of the other with openness, tolerance, and compassion or to accept that other faiths may be encountering different aspects of the same truth. Medieval Christian apologists from the 7th to the 14th centuries struggled to understand Islam, usually reading the Quran and other Muslim literature in its original language.
The majority of these apologists strove to prove the supremacy of Christianity over Islam; however, there were a few exceptions. Peter the Venerable, for example, wrote in the 12th century that in addressing Muslims, Christians should proceed "not as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love." Nicholas of Cusa produced "Sifting the Quran" in the 15th century, which argues that the Quran may be used as an introduction to the Gospel, and praises the human and religious virtues of Muslims.
One of the most compelling calls for religious tolerance may come from the Gospel of John. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays for the unity of all of his followers: 'Father, may they all be one as you are in me, and I in you; may they also be on in us so that the world may believe that you sent me' (John 17:20, 21). Although this appears to be a call to unity within the Church itself, it could also suggest a broader interpretation, calling followers of all faiths to worship the same God.
The Christian response to other faiths is also expressed in the book of Acts where Peter, responding to the realities of a multi-faith community states, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10: 34-35).
There have been several Shi'ia scholars who have supported the call to unity among a plurality of religious perspectives, particularly in the name of establishing peace. The late Allamah Tabataba'I in his interpretation of verse 200 of the Ali-Imran chapter of the Qur'an says: "Undoubtedly, the emergence and formation of any society are the results of a single objective shared in common by all the members of that society.
This objective is like a spirit which is inspired in all nooks and crannies of the society and brings about a certain type of unity among members of the society." In response to this, Dr. Rahim Eivazi of Tehran University states: "Taking note of this point along with the instinctive inclination of man to unify in spite of differences and plurality may render a new definition for a culture of peace, with the Abrahamic religions being the frame of reference for communication patterns in this direction." Dr. Eivazi goes on to say that, "…considering the inefficiency of governmental preventive measures [to reduce tensions in international relations], new measures (achieved through new angles) are needed; the religious scholars of monotheistic religions should get involved in guiding socio-political currents in this direction."
At a meeting of religious and political leaders in Oslo, Norway in May of 2007, former President Mohammad Khatami noted the distinction between religion as an expression of "divine matter" and religion as an aspect of group identity. He went on to quote Surah 2, verse 285 of the Holy Qur'an which states: "We make no distinction between one and another of his Prophets" and, more explicitly, from verse 136 stated, "We believe in God, and the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Jacob and his descendents and that given to Moses and Jesus and that give to all Prophets. We make no difference between one and another of them."
Because of this, Khatami noted, "A believer in Islam will find himself or herself in an identity framework in which believers in other faiths also exist-an identity which not only leads to tolerance but also brings about a kind of solidarity among followers of different religions." Muslims do form a distinct identity group but it is not exclusive. Islam "can be inclusive as it identifies a kind of compassion and proximity as a basis for relations with other identities." He said further, "Islam calls on followers of other religions to get together in an identity circle vaster than a circle of specific individuals-an identity that stands on two pillars: monotheism and freedom of thought."
This brings us back to our original question: are Christians and Muslims called to convert the other or to embrace the possibility of a plurality of perspectives that allows for mutual and respectful exploration of the other's faith? For me, the answer lies in the fruits of efforts that are already underway in this important effort. Through interfaith dialogue, Christians and Muslims who worship the one God are approaching the exploration of each other's faith with reverence and humility and are realizing new possibilities for establishing peace and lasting relations. For example, through our dialogue work with clerics in Iran, we at the National Cathedral have seen repeatedly that this dialogue takes place under conditions of reverence for the other's faith, not attempts at conversion.
As Dr. David Thomas stated, we are engaging in the kind of "respectful inquiry into the faith tradition of the other that puts preconceptions about its truthfulness and legitimacy aside and attempts to discover the core beliefs and diversity of expressions with respect and attentiveness."
We recognize that we are called to this kind of engagement by the God who knows and loves us all and the God we wish to serve. This knowledge supersedes the need for conversion and establishing the supremacy of each faith, and permits us to explore the path of peace and walk together to worship and honor the one God.
As an American who strives to advance reconciliation between my country and Iran, it pleases me to state that leaders in the Iranian clerical and NGO communities have taken the lead in interfaith dialogue as a means to build bridges between cultures and followers of various faith traditions. It was former President Khatami who proposed the idea of a Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures, a notion that received such overwhelming support that the United Nations declared 2001 as the year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.
In addition, the Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran has been conducting interfaith discussions for almost twenty years to provide a platform for the exchange of ideas and the construction of a global community that is grounded in the basic rights of all people. In a joint round of discussions held in Geneva in 2005 between the World Council of Churches and the Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Ayatollah Mahmoud Mohammadi Araqi stated, "We are ready to reach mutual understanding with the nations of the West and any other country or bloc through dialogue.
We reject the idea of a clash of civilizations and still believe that most of the problems of the world can be solved through dialogue. We are open to dialogue and stretch out our hands for anyone in the world who is interested in dialogue to talk and negotiate to find reasonable solutions to our common problems."
Proponents of interfaith dialogue reinforce the notion that people across the lines of faith cannot simply study the sacred texts of the other to deepen their understanding of each tradition. They must meet in person to experience humanity of the other and to comprehend the intricate complexities with which people embrace and live out their faith. One of the failures of the early Christian apologists was that their understanding of Islam was based solely on the Muslim texts they had read. They had virtually no contact with Muslim communities.
We see the negative effects of this kind of isolation underscored in the tensions between the US and Iran, peoples who have had virtually no contact for almost thirty years. In light of the current tensions existing between our countries, the need for peace established through religious channels takes on a unique significance at this point in history.
Interfaith dialogue is work that is ongoing, of course, and each of us must be dedicated to remaining open to learning about the other's faith and humanity. The challenge of this work is not in finding an answer to pluralism but in trying to appreciate why believers from other faiths accept what they do. It is our hope that increasing knowledge of each tradition will lead Christians and Muslims to understand that both traditions are authentic expressions of truth and are parallel paths to the same God. In a world where religion is increasingly used to justify violence, this is a much needed perspective.