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Sharing a country with adherents of other religions or none

Due to the conflicts after the Reformation, the UK has a deep reservoir of knowledge about religious tolerance and freedom. This needs to be absorbed by new citizens. Inter-religious dialogue is essential, and cannot be left to intellectuals or "religious leaders." My article for the Council of Christians and Jews.

Summary

Posted 24 January 2016 Updated 25 January 2016.

The Council of Christians and Jews was founded in 1942 by Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz and Archbishop William Temple. The aim was for Jews and Christians to meet together in local groups, to understand each other a little better and to recognise the humanity in the other. Obviously given the purpose and name of the organisation, most of its members are Christians or Jews.

I have known of it for many years, but only learned about 15 months ago that you do not have to be either Christian or Jewish to join. The only requirement is that you support its objectives. After learning that, I joined the organisation.

The Winter 2015/16 edition of its magazine "Common Ground" has the title "Children of Abraham" and focuses on the trilateral relationship between Christians, Jews and Muslims, both in the UK and overseas.

In October 2015 I was asked to contribute an article of 750 words for this issue. My copy shows that in fact I am the only Muslim contributor to it. The magazine is sent free in hard copy to all members. Past copies are available in PDF form on the CCJ website so I expect this new issue will be uploaded there in due course.

Meanwhile I have reproduced my own article below.

Sharing a country with believers in other religions

Mohammed Amin is the Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.

All religions are abstract nouns. Their real-world impact comes from the impact religions have on the conduct of their followers. Living in the UK since 1952 I have seen major changes in the religious environment, including a dramatic increase in the number of Muslims. Perhaps most significant of all has been the general decline in religious knowledge and observance.

The challenge

Put very simply, how do we share a country with people who hold very different religious beliefs from us? Historically many countries had one overwhelmingly dominant religion, building their laws and perspective on the world around it. Sadly many countries have experienced significant internal conflict, often violent, when they ceased to be religiously uniform.

In addition to the need to live in harmony with people who follow other religions, a second need that must not be overlooked is freedom for individuals within their own religious environments. Not everyone born into a religion wishes to observe it in the manner their religious hierarchy dictates.

The UK today benefits from a deep reservoir of collective knowledge acquired during centuries of religious conflict following the Reformation. However such understanding can never be taken for granted and needs to be continuously refreshed, particularly with new citizens with possibly limited understanding of British history and constitutional theory.

How inter-religious dialogue helps

Most fundamentally, dialogue with believers from other religious traditions teaches us that they are human beings, with their own hopes, fears and uncertainties. For example, a Muslim who grows up in a mono-cultural ghetto and whose only knowledge of Jews is watching news reports from Israel and Palestine is likely to have a far more hostile perception of Jews than a Muslim who regularly collaborates with Jews to organise events of mutual interest and along the way learns how their Jewish friends’ ancestors fled from pogroms in Russia.

Dialogue also forges alliances on issues of common concern. Earlier this year a Jewish friend contacted me about an e-petition seeking to ban non-stun kosher and halal slaughter which was due to be debated in Parliament. He drafted a counter e-petition which I uploaded on the government website. Within only nine days with strong Muslim and Jewish support we had the required 100,000 signatures.

Finally, dialogue helps us understand our own religion much better. Giving presentations to Jewish audiences about Islam obviously compelled me to learn more about it!

What dialogue is not about

It is not about converting other believers into your religion. The dogmatic approach used by missionaries (whether Muslim or Christian) is totally unsuited to genuine dialogue. Nor is dialogue about winning arguments; the goal should be to increase your understanding of the other’s beliefs and worldview.

That does not preclude making it clear where one stands on potentially controversial subjects. For example, before Jewish audiences I have cited the story of Ruth and Naomi to challenge the obstacles that Orthodox Judaism places before people who wish to convert into the religion.

Who are your dialogue partners?

I believe that one should follow one’s personal interests. My involvement with non-Abrahamic religions is much more limited, primarily because they do not share the core beliefs and texts that are common to the three Abrahamic faiths. In my view Judaism is far closer to Islam than is any other religion. This proximity applies not just theologically but also in the way the two religions directly influence the way that believers live their lives. Christianity is of course the close runner-up in proximity to both religions and there are many more Christians than Jews in Britain. Hence my growing involvement in dialogue with Christians.

All three religions have so much in common arising from an undivided history running from Adam onwards until one gets to Jesus. There the trail divides into three, depending on your view of the nature and role of Jesus. Unfortunately, despite all this shared history we find today that Jews, Christians and Muslims are often genuinely ignorant about the history, religious texts and theological beliefs of the other two religions. This often leads to misunderstandings about what the others stand for and can even lead to a toxic mixture of bigotry, intolerance and fear. The only solution is learning and dialogue.

Where next?

To achieve a greater sense of a shared culture, Britain needs more citizens who are actively engaged in interfaith activity. This requires an approach which is not just aimed at intellectuals, or even more restrictively aimed just at clerics and their equivalents in other religions. The key is coming up with interesting events with broader appeal. Also, speaking from my own tradition, it is essential to learn to compartmentalise, to recognise  that it is fine to cooperate with someone about the UK even if one disagrees about Israel/Palestine!

Article and page titles - update added 25.1.2016

The article was intended for an audience which is primarily Christian or Jewish, so I kept the title simple, with "Sharing a country with believers in other religions."

As the comment from Lancelot below points out, many people in the UK have no religion. Accordingly I have amended the page title to read "Sharing a country with adherents of other religions or none."

As well as Jews, Christians and Muslims knowing more about each others religions, they also need an understanding of the perspective of other religions, and of those who have no religion. Too often religious people assume that morality requires religious belief, which is clearly not the case.

The opposite also applies of course. People who have no religious belief often make no attempt to understand the perspective of the religious. As I wrote in my preface to "Islam on Serving Humanity" by Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri:

Today religions are badly misunderstood, with religious belief at times being regarded as almost a mental aberration. Over 40 years ago when I was studying at Cambridge University, a fellow student argued that it was impossible for an intelligent person to believe in God. I simply asked him whether, by being at Cambridge, I qualified as intelligent. He agreed that I did. I then reminded him that I believed in God, which he had the good sense to recognise refuted his argument.

 

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