An epidemic harming our communities is the general inability, hesitance & fear of engaging in dialogue with one another. In fact, in recent years, it appears there has been a significant increase in our communities engaging and initiating inter-faith dialogue, yet we do not see this phenomenon within our own communities. This is while we need such initiatives perhaps even much more so than inter-faith. We lack the ethics and etiquette of engaging in dialogue with other believers and this naturally weakens, distances and breaks up our communities on various fronts. This is of utmost concern particularly for the diaspora that is already in a vulnerable position – and things do not seem to be getting any better. Dialogue is not simply “speaking” – speaking is not the issue, in fact, many of us speak and have a lot to say, and our pulpits are occupied all year long with trained scholars, untrained lecturers and academics speaking.
A dialogue will generally have these three elements:
1) Two or more people
2) A subject of dispute or a subject that needs clarification
3) An expectation that the result of dialogue will either be in favour of you and/or the other party, or not (depending on the conclusion).
When dialogue does not take place, the results we observe are usually the belittlement of others, insults, accusations and rumours, swearing, and in fact, a lack of dialogue can even lead to physical confrontations, wars and bloodshed. These are of course all horrible consequences, particularly when the victims are no other than our selves. These consequences show that the subject of dispute was not resolved or there was no capacity to engage in a dialogue to begin with.
Why do we not engage in dialogue amongst ourselves? Are those who we disagree with amongst the believers so off the mark that we need to maintain a position against them like we should do with those who are genuine enemies of our belief? This is most often not the case at all and only in extremely exceptional circumstances do we have to encounter such groups of people – at which point it would be difficult to even classify them as believers. In the Treatise of Rights, Imam Sajjad (a) says that people of your creed enjoy the following rights over you:
The right of the people of your creed is harbouring safety for them, compassion toward them, kindness toward their wrong-doer, treating them with friendliness, seeking their well-being, thanking their good-doer, and keeping harm away from them. You should love for them what you love for yourself and dislike for them what you dislike for yourself. Their old men stand in the place of your father, their youths in the place of your brothers, their old women in the place of your mother, and their young ones in the place of your children.
Neglecting dialogue over matters of contention, more often than not, results in the trampling of some or all of these rights. So what prevents us from engaging in dialogue? Perhaps one or more of the following preliminaries required for dialogue do not exist:
1. The need to recognize other believers as noble creations of Allah (swt). Verse [17:70] says Allah (swt) has given the children of Adam nobility and honour. In some of our communities, we see believers giving a lot of respect to Sayyids and this is not for any reason except for the fact that they are connected to the Prophet (p) through a chain of many generations. However, it behooves us to realize that we (and creation as a whole) are connected to Allah (swt) directly (or as per certain schools of philosophy, we are the very connection itself). Looking at another believer through the lens of dishonour and painting them as ignoble will not lead us anywhere and signifies a much greater spiritual problem.
2. Acknowledging that humans are different from certain aspects – gender, ethnicities, tribes, physical and spiritual capacities, affinities, tastes etc. We have two types of Sunnah (pl. Sunan) – the Sunnah of the Prophet and the Sunnah of Allah. The Sunan of Allah (swt) are divided into two: there are some Sunan that only become applicable when humans bring them upon themselves through their free-will; for example, the increased bestowal of guidance once we have wilfully chosen to come into Islam –
[47:17] As for those who are [rightly] guided, He enhances their guidance.
[19:76] Allah enhances in guidance those who are [rightly] guided.
There are some Sunan of Allah (swt) that are absolute, not conditioned to the free-will of man. One of these Sunan is His creating us different. These differences are one of the necessary conditions for trial and tribulation to have any meaning in this world.
[5:48] …and had Allah wished He would have made you one community, but [His purposes required] that He should test you in respect to what He has given you…
[6:165] It is He who has made you successors on the earth, and raised some of you in rank above others so that He may test you in respect to what He has given you.
As such, it is normal that even within the same worldview, there will be times people reach different conclusions and do things differently. Acknowledging this opens the door to considering certain points of contention worthy of engagement. On the contrary, allowing these contentions to break us apart may very well be a sign that the believers are failing in their trials.
3. The lack of desire to engage in Ṣulḥ – to reach a conciliation and compromise. Ṣulḥ is often discussed in the context of resolving personal disputes and ironing out details of settlements, or as a treaty for halting warfare. But the general principles of Ṣulḥ can also be used to resolve larger community disputes – as was common in the Muslim world in the past and continues to be the case in many rural places. However, this generic understanding of Ṣulḥ only works if parties involved have a desire to discuss their disputes in a sincere manner (the details and mechanisms of Ṣulḥ have been discussed in detail in their appropriate places). One should not see the mere existence of differences as necessarily going against the command of holding on to the rope of Allah [3:103] – these two are reconcilable on many occasions as the scholars have mentioned. The absence of Ṣulḥ breaks and fragments the communities of the believers.
4. Reality is too vast and not all of it is in our hands. At any given point we have only understood certain aspects of it and that as well to a certain degree, not absolute reality –
[17:85] and you have not been given of the knowledge except a little.
We need to acknowledge that there are other perspectives and there is genuine room for these perspectives to be justified within an Islamic framework. The vastness of reality should alone be enough to humble and soften us to engage in dialogue with another party amongst the believers. The delusion of having uncovered all of the truth regarding a certain matter and behaving as if no one else could possibly say anything that would add anything to our knowledge is a deterrent and barrier for dialogue.
Featured Image: Baagh Fin, Kashan (Feb 2013) – where Amir Kabir (d. 1852) was exiled and eventually murdered.
Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.