Paper: Dialogue or Conversion? Evan P. Anderson

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Dialogue or Conversion?  An examination of Christian-Muslim eschatological texts and their potential impact on interfaith dialogue

Evan P. Anderson, Washington National Cathedral


As the world continues to divide along the lines of religion and culture, interfaith dialogue has emerged as a legitimate and powerful tool for peacemaking.  This is especially true for followers of the three Abrahamic traditions who have the potential to realize geo-political and cross-cultural reconciliation through this type of engagement.  But viewed through the prism of the eschatological texts of Twelver Shi’ism and Christianity, does interfaith dialogue serve a valid purpose?  If, as some members of both traditions claim, the return of the Redeemer signals a period of bloodshed and conversion to the “one true faith” before peace occurs, does interfaith dialogue play a legitimate role?  Or, does the moral imperative of converting “the other” as outlined in the sacred texts of both traditions supersede the significance of this peacemaking approach?


The role of religion in international conflict

The events of September 11th, the war and sectarian violence in Iraq, Islamaphobia in the West, and the ongoing discord in the Holy Land have underscored the significant role that faith and culture play in the world’s most intractable conflicts.  Central to our understanding of these and other struggles are the relationships that exist between and among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each tradition brings its own doctrinal and geo-political issues to this triad and each must be understood within the context of its association to the other to appreciate fully past and present clashes.  As followers of each tradition have assumed a position of religious and cultural supremacy through the ages, the relationships have been characterized by periods of peaceful co-existence juxtaposed with periods of bloody warfare.  Today, conflict in the Holy Land and the mounting tensions between Islam and the West highlight the need for a reevaluation of these relationships as Jews, Christians, and Muslims encounter each other with increasing frequency and intimacy. 


Many would argue that there is no more salient need in the global community than to facilitate interfaith dialogue conducted within the framework of international peacekeeping and, in recent years, we have seen this kind of outreach become a priority of the world’s major religions.  Indeed, many religious leaders have begun to successfully engage in the kind of reconciliation dialogue that has eluded diplomats and political leaders for decades.


Human Agency
On a basic level, interfaith dialogue is implemented through a belief in the concept of human agency which states that human beings have the freedom and capacity make choices, impose those choices on the world, and bring about change (in this case, peace and reconciliation between faiths and nations). 


Human beings have struggled for centuries to understand their relationship to and with the Creator and creation.  The freedom to act, the notion of free will, and the power to affect change are concepts found in many of the world’s great religions.  But where is the line drawn between God’s activity and human activity in the world?  What is the responsibility of God and what is the responsibility of human beings?  Are there really activities belonging only to and preordained by God?  If so, where and how do we make this distinction between what is up to God and what is properly within the scope of man’s power to affect or change?  These are questions that may never be answered to the satisfaction of all believers but we may search the sacred texts and teachings of Christianity and Islam to determine what followers of both traditions are called and empowered to do.


The writings of both faiths state that Christians and Muslims are entrusted with great responsibility by God for the betterment of the world.  A common theme in the teachings of Christian social justice emphasizes the responsible participation in God’s own work of creating a more society.  The United States Catholic bishops in a 1986 pastoral letter on the economy provide a case in point:  


Men and women are also to share in the creative activity of God. They are to be faithful, to care for the earth (“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”) (Genesis 2:15), and to have “dominion” over it (“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'”) (Genesis 1:28), which means they are “to govern the world in holiness and justice and to render judgment in integrity of heart” (Wisdom 9:3). Creation is a gift; women and men are to be faithful stewards in caring for the earth. They can justly consider that by their labor they are unfolding the Creator’s work.

Later, the bishops explain that “although the ultimate realization of God’s plan lies in the future, Christians in union with all people of good will are summoned to shape history in the image of God’s creative design…” (section 53).  Here the bishops echo a point made by John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens:  

The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.

Further, in two passages from the New Testament, Christians are called to a life of loving service through direct participation in the lives of others and pastoral action.  James 1:27 states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  Also, 1 John 3:18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Of course, the most compelling command for Christians is found in Matthew 22:37-40 in which Jesus says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ‘This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

According to Christian teachings, then, God’s agency is made concrete or complete in human activity in the pursuit of justice and in acts of loving service to mankind. 

This concept is also found quite clearly in Islam.  For Muslims, sovereignty belongs to God but it has been delegated in the form of human agency (Quran, 2:30).  The task for human beings is to reflect on how this God-given agency can be best employed in creating a society that will bring welfare and goodness to the population both now and in the future.  God is sovereign in all affairs, but He has exercised sovereignty by delegating some of it in the form of human empowerment.

Like the passage in Genesis which speaks to the dominion of man over all creation, Surah 45:13 of the Qur’an states: “And He has disposed for your benefit whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.  All is from Him.”  In addition, Surah 53:39 states: “Man can have nothing except that which he strives for and the results of his striving will soon be seen.”  In his book, “Our Belief,” His Holiness Ayatullahelozma Makarem Shirazi responds to this by saying, “Such verses in the holy Qur’an will clearly show that man has free will and that we may submit man’s deeds and acts to God without any reduction in his responsibilities for what he does. God wills that we do what we do by freedom and free will so that he may examine us and lead us forward in the way of perfection which can be attained through free will and serving the Lord.”

We see also in Islam a pastoral imperative to provide for the orphan and the widow.  “And they give food out of love to the poor and the orphan and the captive” (Qur’an 76:8).  In addition, it is evident from the numerous references in the Qur’an and the Bible concerning the Day of Judgment that Christians and Muslims cannot be held accountable for their actions unless they are given the agency to do so.  But how is that agency is best applied when encountering those of other faiths?  If there is only one true faith and all who do not accept that faith will perish, is the moral imperative for Christians and Muslims one of dialogue or conversion?

The return of the Redeemer and the vengeance narrative
Throughout the ages, Christians and Muslims have imagined that the return of their Redeemer was imminent.  Although there is a prohibition in Islam about speculating about the time of the return of Imam Mahdi, and Christians are told that no one knows the hour or the day of Christ’s reappearance, believers in both traditions have clung to the notion that their deliverance was close at hand. 

For Christians, concentration on the eschatological texts of the Bible has taken on increasing significance in recent years.  The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 fueled renewed interest in the fulfillment of end-times prophecies, particularly those that predicted the return of Jews to Israel and reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple that was destroyed in A.D. 70.  Christians who believe in end-times prophecies tend to focus heavily on the apocalyptic verses of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. 


For Shi’ia Muslims, an emphasis on the return of the twelfth Imam has been a central theme of their tradition for centuries and their prophecies are described in the Qur’an and various other hadith traditions including that of al-Mufaddal b. Umar.  The texts of both faiths speak of a Redeemer who will come to restore justice and peace upon the earth after battles with the forces of evil and the oppressors of the believers.  These texts convey the visions of prophets and holy men who used vivid (and often violent) imagery and prophecy to describe the end of days. 

More specifically, Christians envision a second coming of Christ in which all nations will recognize his dominion to establish the kingdom of God on earth while Muslims conceive of an Imam who will rise against existing intolerable secular authority and create  just social order in which Islam will be the one true religion for all nations.  Coupled with this concept, however, is also the belief that revenge will be exacted upon the oppressor.  Perhaps for similar reasons, the revenge narrative is very much a part of both traditions.

There is a certain brand of religious scholarship which claims that historical context must be considered when examining the eschatological texts of any religious tradition.  Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia is one such scholar.  Dr. Sachedina believes that, for believers of most major faiths, the political and social turmoil of the day was written in form of prophecy, specifically in a narrative evoking vengeance against the oppressor.  Such a hope is the natural outcome among groups who have been wronged and oppressed; the need for a deliverer becomes imperative. 


For Shi’ia Muslims, the oppression of the caliphs and their administrators added much to the events foretold in apocalyptic traditions, just as the oppression of the early Christians influenced early writers to put their hope in a messiah who would not only universalize the faith but would put down their oppressors.  It would seem, then, that the degree of violence of the eschatological texts runs parallel to the amount of oppression experienced by the oppressed group: the deeper the oppression, the darker the apocalyptic vision.  An illustration of this concept may be found in the Bihar regarding the return of the Prophet: “With the believers, those who falsified his mission and doubted it will also return so that proper vengeance for their disbelief can be exacted from them.”

This sentiment is further evidenced in the condolences that Shi’ites offer each other on the occasion of the Ashura: “May God grant us great rewards for our bereavement caused by the martyrdom of al-Husayn (peace by upon him), and make us among those will exact vengeance for his blood with his friend the Imam al-Mahdi, from among the descendents of Muhammad (peace be upon him).”

For Christians, this sentiment is evidenced by several Old and New Testament passages including Deuteronomy 32:43 which states: “Rejoice, oh you nations, with his people.  For He will avenge the blood of His servants and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land and to his people.” 

Supremacy of each tradition and infallibility of sacred texts
Christians and Muslims who believe in the cataclysmic end to history 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, as is noted 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.  Like Imam Mahdi, Christ 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 most clearly established in John 14:6 where Jesus states: “I am the way and the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the apocalyptic texts of Matthew, we see Jesus 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 before Him shall be gathered all nations.  And he shall separate them as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:32).

A belief in the inerrancy of the sacred texts of each tradition exists quite clearly within Islam and Christianity.  Muslims acknowledge the divine attributes of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures but maintain that the Qur’an stands apart in that it has remained 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 remained 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 notable 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, few religious leaders have possessed the patience or the courage to learn about the religion of the other with openness 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 for Christians 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 one 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, 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 interfaith dialogue or to the conversion of the other?  If not to conversion, is it possible to embrace a plurality of perspectives that allows for the respectful exploration of the other’s faith?  For this author, the answer lies in the fruits of efforts that are already underway in this important endeavor.  Through interfaith dialogue, Christians and Muslims who worship the one God are exploring each other’s faiths 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 strive to ensure that this dialogue takes place under conditions of reverence for the other’s faith, not attempts at conversion.  As a consequence, we have established positive, respectful relationships with the Iranian community.  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 one God who knows and loves us all as one human family.  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 is gratifying for me to see that leaders in the Iranian clerical and NGO communities have taken the lead in employing interfaith dialogue 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.”  

Participants in 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 the 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 these hostilities, the need for peace established through religious channels takes on a unique significance, in part because the church and the mosque can facilitate humanizing encounters between Iranians and Americans.

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.


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Evan Anderson is the Executive Director of the US-Iran Cultural Alliance, an organization which promotes reconciliation between the United States and Iran through people-to-people exchanges in academia, religion, healthcare, and the arts.  The Alliance also develops projects and programs that explore the US-Iran relationship and expose Americans to Persian culture.