Intention & Meeting People of Other Faiths

Peace, one and all…


‘Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest’ (Surah al-Ra’d 13:28)

This morning, as with most others, I took the train to work; and, as usual, I had a good book to keep me company on the journey.  This morning’s book of choice was Sophie Gilliat-Ray’s Religion in Higher Education: The Politics of the Multi-faith Campus

As might perhaps be obvious, I chose this book because of my recent enrolment on the Muslim Chaplaincy course.  As I grow older, I realise that starting new projects is a strong point of mine (though finishing them, perhaps less so).  In any case, I wanted to start reading around chaplaincy, especially in Higher Education.  Moreover, I know Sophie and so this title seemed an obvious choice.

On the train this morning, I had just enough time to read the introduction and second chapter, but jumping ahead (another character fault), I found myself exploring the appendices.  Appendix 5 gives an excerpt from a document entitled Buidling Good Relations With People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, published by the Inter-faith Network for the UK.  There is much in this document that is good, and much fuel for further reflective ‘travel’.  Given this, I’d like to quote from it at length:

As members of the human family, we should show each other respect and courtesy. In our dealings with people of other faiths and beliefs this means exercising good will and:

  • Respecting other people’s freedom within the law to express their beliefs and convictions
  • Learning to understand what others actually believe and value, and letting them express this in their own terms
  • Respecting the convictions of others about food, dress and social etiquette and not behaving in ways which cause needless offence
  • Recognising that all of us at times fall short of the ideals of our own traditions and never comparing our own ideals with other people’s practices 
  • Working to prevent disagreement from leading to conflict
  • Always seeking to avoid violence in our relationships

As a statement of general principles, I think these are eminently sensible, and well expressed.  In particular, the fourth point (about not comparing ideals with practices) is especially important.  I’ve often seen this kind of approach at work: I’ve seen many speakers at Speaker’s Corner use this method.  Not only does this technique obstruct constructive discussion, it is also deeply dishonest, as it attempts to offer a sanitised picture (and that’s the last thing we need).

The document then moves to explore what you might call ‘the ethics of engagement’ (by which I simply mean the practical ethics of actual discussion):

When we talk about matters of faith with one another, we need to do so with sensitivity, honesty and straightforwardness. This means:

  • Recognising that listening as well as speaking is necessary for a genuine conversation
  • Being honest about our beliefs and religious allegiances
  • Not misrepresenting or disparaging other people’s beliefs and practices
  • Correcting misunderstanding or misrepresentations not only of our own but also of other faiths whenever we come across them
  • Being straightforward about our intentions
  • Accepting that in formal inter faith meetings there is a particular responsibility to ensure that the religious commitment of all those who are present will be respected.

Again, these are excellent ground-rules (though once I’ve had a chance to digest them more thoroughly I’m sure there will be further fuel for reflection).  In this post, however, I wanted to pick up on the fifth point: ‘Being straightforward about our intentions’.  As intention is also such an important topic in the Islamic tradition, I wanted to offer a few (initial) reflections.

The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said, in a very famous hadith:

“Actions are (judged) by motives (niyyah), so each man will have what he intended. Thus, he whose migration (hijrah) was to Allah and His Messenger, his migration is to Allah and His Messenger; but he whose migration was for some worldly thing he might gain, or for a wife he might marry, his migration is to that for which he migrated.” (Recorded by Imam Bukhari)

In other words, intention is absolutely crucial.  Indeed, it is intention alone that gives moral worth to an action.  An act of charity done for the sake of God alone is vastly different from an (apparent) act of charity done for outward show, or to make the recipient feel indebted.  Imam Shafi’i (rahmatullahi alaih) is reported to said that this tradition (and the principle behind it) constitutes one third of Islam.

Given that this is such an important topic in general, what should my intentions be when approaching inter-faith dialogue?  In other words, what resources does our tradition of Islam offer us in this regard?

Perhaps one of the most important points is that Islam, like Christianity, is a ‘missionary’ religion.  That is, it actively seeks to spread its teachings.  In the Quran, God makes the following statement:

‘Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance’ (Surah al-Nahl 16:125, trans. Yusuf Ali)

In other words, our intention should be da’wah (invitation).  But, let me be clear here, I don’t mean da’wah as it is commonly understood.  I’m most definitely not referring to preaching/proselytising as such.  As someone who came to Islam in later life, I don’t think preaching (in the sense of mere argumentation, or trying to drive someone into Islam through logic) works.  Rather, we should be ready to share our beliefs, our values and our practice of them

With regards to intention, our motivation in inter-faith discussion should only be to communicate.  God alone opens hearts.  Moreover, there is a very real and important difference between the words people say and the beliefs they hold in their innermost selves.  The Quran has this to say:

‘He is Allah, than Whom there is no other Allah, the Knower of the Invisible and the Visible. He is the Beneficent, Merciful’ (Surah al-Hashr 59:22, trans. Pickthal)

Furthermore, given the porous nature of language, people often use very different words to say similar things, just as apparently similar terms can be used in widely different ways and contexts.  That is, in approaching inter-faith discussions, we should be keenly aware of the limitations of language.  In this regard, let me re-use my quote:

‘for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance’ (Surah al-Nahl 16:125)

Islam teaches us that only God, the Exalted, knows the secrets of the human heart, as the Quran makes clear:

‘And know that Allah cometh in between a man and his heart, and that it is He to Whom ye shall (all) be gathered’ (Surah al-Anfal 8:24, trans. Yusuf Ali)

This perhaps natural, given the salvific importance of the heart: 

‘The Day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart’ (Surah al-Shu’ara 26:88-89)

In essence, my point is that, as Muslims, we should be open in approaching inter-faith work; open to other points of view; open to others as people; and open, ultimately, to Allah.  Our intention should thus be to share our faith, and all the deeds of selfless humanity it has inspired Muslims to perform.  Our aim should khidmat-i khalq (or to serve creation) as true vice-regents of God on earth.

I’d like to conclude this post by citing an important hadith of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam).  The tradition in question is recorded by Imam Muslim (rahmatullahi alaih):

‘It is narrated on the authority of Usama b. Zaid that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) sent us in a raiding party. We raided Huraqat of Juhaina in the morning. I caught hold of a man and he said: There is no god but Allah, I attacked him with a spear. It once occurred to me and I talked about it to the Apostle (may peace be upon him). The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Did he profess” There is no god but Allah,” and even then you killed him? I said: Messenger of Allah, he made a profession of it out of the fear of the weapon. He (the Holy Prophet) observed: Did you tear his heart in order to find out whether it had professed or not? And he went on repeating it to me till I wished I had embraced Islam that day’.  (Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 0176).

All that is right and true in this post comes from Allah, the Lord of All Being.  Only the mistakes are mine.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman


5 thoughts on “Intention & Meeting People of Other Faiths

  1. Salaam Alaikum brother,

    Thank you for posting this! There is a lot in it we can take from and it has many good tips to put into practice. Good interfaith relations are very important, and we are supposed to respect and be at peace with all people including those who share beliefs different from us.

    May Allah grant you the best.

  2. Salaams MShahin,

    Thank you for your kind comments. They are much appreciated. May Allah bless you and all that you do.

    I think the key point for me is: good relations with people. May Allah help us.

    Abdur Rahman

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