Akrami believes that the current global situation necessitates interfaith relations because culture, of which religion is a very important part, is replacing the Cold War paradigm of political and economic polarization. He commended the West, and especially the United States, for establishing centers for religion and diplomacy to study this new relationship. After expounding on the importance of countries and, referring to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, he noted that Huntington had also called for dialogue. Echoing this approach, Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami launched his Dialogue of Civilizations initiative during 2001. Akrami asserted that right now it is more practical for interfaith participants to limit their focus to Islam and Christianity, the world’s largest religions.
While providing an historical overview of interfaith dialogue, he related how Christianity has viewed Islam, how Muslims have viewed other religions (especially Christianity), and how best to view their past contacts with each other. He cited John of Damascus (d. 750), the first Christian scholar of (and polemicist against) Islam, who viewed Islam as a Christian heresy; the Crusades, which began in 1096 and lasted for approximately 200 years and seemed to have been anti-Byzantium (Eastern Orthodox) as well as anti-Muslim; and Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), who also saw Islam as a Christian heresy. Realizing that one must understand Islam in order to oppose it, he set up a committee to translate the Qur’an into Latin.
Other bright spots were Francis of Assisi’s (d. 1226) being impressed by the Muslim’s dedication to prayer, which he saw first-hand during his ultimately futile attempt to convert Egypt’s Sultan Malik-al Kamil. Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) believed in a fundamental unity between different religions, regardless of their adherents’ ways of praying and worshipping God. Shortly after Constantinople fell in 1453, he wrote De pace Fidei (On the Peace of Faith), an imaginary dialogue between seventeen representatives of religions (including Islam) and various Christian dominations. Akrami expressed a desire to see his work studied more closely.
Christian-Muslims relations worsened with the rise of the Ottomans and the fall of Constantinople. Martin Luther (d. 1546), a very anti-Islam and anti-Ottoman theologian and priest, wrote in his War against the Turk that Prophet Muhammad was, among other things, the “destroyer of our Lord Christ and His Kingdom.” He promoted the view that Islam follows the law of works and of the sword, a view that would last until the nineteenth century.
The development of communication and transportation, the rise of the academic study of religion, and missionary activities in the Muslim world eventually changed this view. This last element placed Christians in personal and direct contact with Muslims and, over time, moved the latter from “enemy” to “other,” “them,” and “you,” and finally a part of “us.”
Many other incidents stand out in the timeline of interfaith relations:
He remarked that Muslims continue to view Christianity and other religions in primarily negative, exclusionary, and polemical terms based on Qur’anic verses that have been taken out of their original context. However, in
his opinion, Sufism has been a notable exception due to its traditionally pluralistic view. Charges that the Bible has been altered, that Christians follow seriously errant doctrines (Original Sin, the Trinity, submission to the political authorities, and turning the other cheek), and others remain common. Akrami deplores this negativity, saying that Muslims have failed to consider the many nuances of the Trinity and other Christian doctrines. Christians also face a major problem: Given that the New Testament states that God’s final plan of salvation unfolded with Jesus’ final redemptive act – the crucifixion, which the Qur’an denies – Islam and Muhammad cannot possibly be true.
Akrami stated that for interfaith relations to progress, both Muslims and Christians need to transcend their traditional exclusivism (which the Qur’an itself rejects) and inclusiveness by reaching for pluralism (no religion is superior to another). According to him, the Qur’anic call for people to submit to God long predates Muhammad and what was revealed to him (the religion now known as “Islam”), for all previous prophets and messengers were also Muslim. Therefore, submission cannot be limited to Muslims. Muslims should also study the verses dealing with the Ahl al-Kitab (People of The Book). He stated that the Qur’an rejects the sins committed by them in their actions, not in their doctrines. Such an approach, which he supports, will help Muslims draw closer to pluralism.
The event was followed by a lively question-and-answer session.
Photos on Flickr