When we speak of interreligious dialogue, it would not be honest to refer only to the verses we have quoted without mentioning a series of other passages in the Qur’an that can be equivocal and that are moreover variously interpreted by Muslim scholars. Some of the ulama of the literalist traditions read them restrictively, which basically does not leave any real room for discussion. A sincere involvement in dialogue must stop to consider these verses. Thus, one finds in the Qur’an verses that define Jews and Christians, even though they are among the “people of the Book,” as kuffar (plural of kafir), most often translated as “infidels” or “miscreants”: “They are certainly in a state of denial [kafara], those who have said that God was the Messiah the son of Mary” or again, “Those among the people of the Book and the polytheists who have denied [kafaru].”According to the perspective of the majority of literalist scholars, this leaves no doubt as to their fate, especially since the Qur’an says explicitly: “Religion in the sight of God is Islam” and again: “He who desires religion other than Islam will not find himself accepted and in the hereafter he will be among the losers.” Other verses seem to tell us that we should not trust Jews and Christians )“And the Jews and Christians will not be pleased with you unless you follow their religion”) or take them as allies except in extreme circumstances: “Let the believers [Muslims] not take as allies the deniers [kafirin] rather than believers; those who do so will receive no help from God, unless you feel yourselves to be in danger from them.” Such an avalanche of verses has the effect of causing perplexity and raises questions about whether any real place for dialogue remains, the more so since these same scholars clearly explain that they do not believe there is any virtue in discussion unless the intention is to convince the other party of the strength and truth of our arguments. Interreligious dialogue would then become a call to our truth, a dawa (call, invitation, preaching), with no meaning beyond that.
Here we are at the heart of the problem of the types of “reading” to which we referred in part I where the various schools of thought were described. The advantage of the literalist reading over all the others is that it stops at the primary meaning of the text that, as soon as it is quoted, seems to make immediate sense and gives weight to the argument. No trouble is taken to work out a reading based on critical distance, contextualized interpretation, or determination of the meaning of a verse in light of the message as a whole. As a literalist, what I read is what was said, and God speaks through me as long as my quotations are from His word. It is nevertheless advisable to take each of the verses mentioned earlier and to try to discover whether the literalist reading is the only appropriate one.
It must be said, to begin with, that the Arabic notion of kufr or kafir has often been mistranslated, quite apart from the fact that many Muslims in the West use it as a definite insult. But the word has a neutral sense in the Islamic sciences, and it is clearly perceived at various levels. Without going into technical details here, we may say that, according to the root, the general meaning of kafir could be rendered as “a denier with a veiled heart”: this refers to those whose original longing for the Transcendent has been stifled, veiled, shut off in their hearts to the extent that they deny the presence of the Creator. But kafir may also indicate one who denies the evidence of the truth, like the satanic figure of Iblis in the Qur’an, who knows that God is, since he speaks to Him, but refuses to obey: “He [Iblis] refused, became proud and was among the deniers [min al-kafirin].” To this must be added various kinds of negation, kufr, which are determined according to what is denied: God, the truth of the message, one of the pillars of faith, the nature of a particular commandment, and so on. So to apply the term kafir to Jews and Christians in a neutral sense is justified in that, in a quite natural way, they do not recognize the Qur’an as the last revealed book. They deny [yakfuru] the truth of the message and its Prophet, but this does not mean we may call them “miscreants” in the sense that their faith in God is not recognized, which would be an inaccurate assertion: this would be as senseless as to say that Iblis, who had a dialogue with the Most High, did not believe in Him and was a miscreant. This is neither logical understanding nor a consistent translation. We must add that it is never legitimate to use the word as an insult.
The verse indicating that the religion in the sight of God is Islam has caused a lot of ink to flow. Here again we are dealing with a question of interpretation. We know that in the Qur’an the word islam has two meanings. The first is universal and generic: all the elements, as we have said in part I, are in “submission” to God because they respect the order of creation; in the same sense, all the revelations and prophets came with a message of the oneness of God and the need to “submit oneself” to Him. Thus, Abraham, well before the revelation of the Qur’an, is commanded by God: “And when his Lord said to him: ‘Submit [aslim]!’ he replied: ‘I submit [aslamtu] to the Lord of the worlds.’ ” The words aslim and aslamtu come from islam in the sense of recognition of the one God and acceptance of the obedience due to Him. The second meaning of the word islam is thereligion whose text is the Qur’an and whose prophet is Muhammad. Literalist scholars have interpreted these verses giving the word the restricted meaning of the second definition, while the generic definition makes better sense of the Islamic message as a whole, which, apart from being the final revelation, identifies natural religion, one and unique throughout history, as the recognition of the existence of a Creator and conformance to His messages. This is also confirmed by the verse “Certainly those who have believed, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans, all those who have believed in God and in the last day of judgment and who have done good—they will have their reward from God. They will not be afraid and they will not grieve.” The generic meaning is clear here, and those scholars who have claimed that this verse has been abrogated [mansukh] pay no regard to the rule of abrogation, which specifies that only verses stipulating obligations or prohibitions (which may change in the course of revelation) can be abrogated but not information, which cannot be true one day and untrue the next. This verse is clearly giving information.
The verse “The Jews and the Christians will not be pleased with you unless you follow their religion [milla]” is quoted at will in times of trouble or simply when people want to justify mistrusting some Jews or Christians. The verse is heard from mosque pulpits, in conferences, and at seminars, with the implication that it explains the attitude of Jews and Christians toward Muslims: their rejection of Islam, their double dealing, not to say deceitfulness, and colonization, proselytism, wars, Bosnia, Palestine, and so on. But that is not what the verse says: the phrase “will not be pleased with you” [lan tarda anka] translates here the idea of full and absolute satisfaction, expressed with the heart as well as the mind. For Jews and Christians convinced, like a Muslim, of the truth of their own message, complete satisfaction with the other is attained when the experience of faith and truth is shared. One has the feeling of living and sharing this essential element that gives meaning and light to one’s life. This does not imply that in the absence of this full satisfaction one can live in and express only rejection, mistrust, and conflict. One can feel and manifest deep and sincere respect toward a human being with whom one does not share this full spiritual communion. It is a matter of being sincere and of recognizing the states of our souls and hearts. It is within our communities of faith that we live most deeply the fullness of the meaning of (rida) with the other who shares our truth, even if it is possible (though it is the exception rather than the rule) that we might experience a unique spiritual relationship with a woman or a man from another tradition. The Qur’an here is speaking only of the intimate and very natural inclination of people of faith toward one another. At a deeper level, believers must be conscious that ultimately what they must seek before all else is to please God [rida Allah], not other people. It is good for believers to remember that the full satisfaction shared with their coreligionists is still only a stage along the way. Seeking the pleasure of God is a demanding path punctuated by testing stations, but this initiation is ultimately the only way that it is possible to become, in humility, fully content with oneself.
With regard to the verse referring to the seemingly impossible alliance with Jews and Christians, we have already referred to it. From the context of the verse, and others like it, we derive that Muslims are commanded in situations of potential conflict not to take deniers as allies against Muslims [min dun al-muminin], that is to say, to make an alliance unjustly or treacherously in opposition to their spiritual community. It does not apply absolutely, and the following verse specifies clearly those with whom relations are banned: “God forbids you to turn in friendship toward [or take as allies] only such as fight against you because of your faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth: and as for those [from among you] who turn toward them in friendship [or alliance], it is they, they who are truly wrongdoers!”
Here a word is needed on that concept of dawa, often translated as “preaching,” “call,” or “invitation to Islam” and which has thus come to express the missionary character of Islam. It cannot be denied that some Muslims, on the basis of a certain number of verses, are engaged in straightforward missionary activity, and in their minds dialogue is only a form of mission. To deny this would be a dishonest. One must then look at how the Qur’an presents the act of “inviting” or “calling” to Islam. The verse that follows is well known: “Call [invite] to the path of your Lord using wisdom and good exhortation, and debate with them in the best of manner.” If we meditate on this verse, we understand that emphasis is put first on the Muslim who “invites.” He has to have acquired a certain wisdom, know to speak well, and have mastered the best way of expressing things: three injunctions bring together the requirements related to being a good speaker, the content of the message, and the way in which it must be delivered. In other words, to “invite” is first to “bear witness,” as much by one’s behavior as by the content and form of what one says, what the message of Islam is. It is not a matter of wanting to convert, because people’s hearts are God’s domain and secret. It is a matter of bearing witness, which is an invitation to remember and meditate. This meaning also is captured by another verse: “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before mankind.” Interreligious dialogue should be a meeting of “witnesses” who are seeking to live their faiths, to share their convictions, and to engage with one another for a more humane, more just world, closer to what God expects of humanity.
At the end of this section, we note that the verses mentioned earlier are indeed variously interpreted. All religious traditions experience these differences, and, depending on the type of reading that is accepted, one may be open to dialogue or absolutely opposed to it. The nature of these difficulties has to be taken into account in order to avoid any illusions about the possible results of our meetings.