A community dialogue: What does Islam say about tolerance, forgiveness and compassion?

by Muslim Hands

Interfaith dialogue from an Islamic perspective was the central theme of a community forum, which took place recently at the Quaker Centre in Plymouth.

The event brought faith leaders, educators, and community members from Bahá’í, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism,  Quaker, and several Muslims traditions to have an open and honest dialogue about issues concerning Islam.

The participants came not just from Plymouth, but also from Cornwall, Devon and West Somerset.

The main purpose of the meeting was to present the finding of a path-breaking book, entitled “Interfaith Dialogue from an Islamic perspective”, written by Dr. Qadir Bakhsh, MBE, and Maqsood Ahmed, OBE.

The meeting was organized by Tam Martin Fowles, Founder of the Plymouth-based Hope in the Heard and Don de Silva, Director of Changeways.

In her opening remarks, Tam Martin Fowles, said: “As founder of social enterprise Hope in the Heart, I have been involved with issues around diversity and hate crime for several years, and the rise in prejudice and misunderstanding towards Muslim members of our communities in the UK have increasingly become a concern and focus of our work.”

“While Plymouth has a well-developed interfaith community, the South West, in general,  is an area in which cultural diversity is limited and many attitudes are based on a lack of exposure to people from different backgrounds. I feel passionately that the way forward is to raise awareness of the truth that is often distorted or ignored by the mainstream media the majority rely upon for information. “

The forum heard from three presenters:

Dr Qadir Bakhsh, formerly worked as a director of Race Equality Council and Head of Race Equality Unit with a London Borough. Over the past forty years, he has extensively researched and published about matters  concerning faith communities.

Maqsood Ahmed, Director of Community Development and Welfare at Muslim Hands UK, a leading international development charity. He was a adviser to the Home Office on faith issues. He is passionate about interfaith dialogue and works tirelessly to promote peace and understanding among faith communities, both in the UK and abroad.

Sister Iqbal Warsi  is the Muslim Chaplain for the Cornwall Faith Forum and Police Reference Group for Devon and Cornwall. She coordinated clinical trials for breast cancer for the Medical Research Council’s Biostatistics Unit and Cambridge University’s Department of Radiology from 1992 to 2010.

De Bakhsh began with the breakdown of world population along faith lines: Christianity, 33 per cent; Islam, 21 per cent; “non Religious”, 16 per cent;

Hinduism, 14 per cent; Buddhism, 6 per cent;  Chinese traditions, 6 per cent; indigenous beliefs, 6 per cent; and others, including Sikhism 0.36 per cent  and Judaism 0.22 per cent.

Out of Britain’s total population of 56 million, 2.7 million are Muslims.  Thirty seven per cent of the population live in London and the rest are largely settled in the West Midlands, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber.

Dr Bakhsh turned to the challenges facing the Muslims in the UK: the diversity of cultures coming from different parts of the world, for example: Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indian Muslims, Somalis, Turkish and North Africans.

The challenges facing them include: political Islam; challenges within the Muslims populations; the perceived  “threat” of Islam;  and those who want denigrate Muslims and other religions to serve their own ends.  He said that many minorities in Britain, including Muslims, faced challenges when integrating with host communities.

“However, integration is a two-way process”, he added.

Sister Warsi started by explaining that the Muslim greeting “Assalam alaikum” meant  “peace to every one present, their families and their wider communities”.  She drew the attention of the attendees to her display, which had a picture of the Hajj pilgrimage being performed in Makkah in Saudia  Arabia and explained that the black building in the center of the mosque was build by Abraham and his son Ishmael. This pilgrimage is one of the pillars of Islam.

She highlighted the links between  Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, who had the same message so we are not at all different. Prophet Mohammed told a group of women, who sought him for advice, to use Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a role model.

Sister Warsi then focused on the important status of women and protection given to all women worldwide, in and outside, the faith. When extremist groups in different parts of the world kidnap women and rape and force women to marry they break the very foundations of Islam.  She urged everyone in the room to read the clear and precise ‘Letter to Baghdadi’,  complied by many Imams in the UK, which states that “it is forbidden in Islam to abuse any women deny them their rights”.

Maqsood Ahmed said that way we often chose to see the people whom we interact with, determined our experiences.

“We lived in fear and looked at each other with suspicion more so now than ever before since 9/11 (in 2001) and 7/7 (in 2005). Fear held us back and prevented us from looking beyond our past and looking at each other as individuals.”

He said that their book points out that Islam encourages interactions between people with different faiths. It presents a specifically Islamic perspective on interfaith, predominantly in the light of the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. The authors stress that dialogue between other faiths is bound with the teaching of Islam. He said the book contains well-compiled direct quotations from the Holy Qu’ran.

For instance:

“There is no compulsion in religion.” (Qu’ran 2:256)

 “Truly, those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day is virtuous – surely their last day is with their Lord, no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.”(Qu’ran 2:62)

Mr Ahmed said that interfaith dialogue was nothing new to Islam. The book  cites an incident when a Christian delegation met with the Prophet to find out about Islam. He allowed them to stay in the Mosque and enabled them to pray in their own Christian way. He also sent delegations to different parts of the world to spread information about his mission.

Each presentation was following a brief period of silence for reflection.

The open dialogue, which ensued, focused on the real meaning of jihad, Sharia Law, the status of women, the origins of the different traditions within Islam, current conflicts as in Syria, the plight of the people in Yemen, media reporting about Islam, the wearing of the hijab, the concepts of giving in Islam, such as Zakat and Sadaqah.

Don de Silva, who chaired the meeting, said that a poll, conducted by ICM and Just Giving,  in 2012 highlighted that Muslims are among Britain’s most generous givers, topping a poll of religious groups that donate to charity. According to the poll, Muslims who donated to charity gave an average of almost £371 each per year, with Jewish givers averaging just over £270 per person. Roman Catholics giving slightly more than £178, Protestants £202 and other Christians slightly less than £178.

He said, the poll found that a growing number of Muslims were making their charitable donations online. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the compulsory giving of a proportion of one’s wealth to charity. JustGiving said religious charities benefited most, but many donations also went to the likes of Cancer Research, Macmillan and the British Heart Foundation.

Commenting on the forum, Pip Harris, Quaker’s Local Development Worker for West Somerset, Devon and Cornwall,  said: “Quakers across the South West are involved in many small ways with Interfaith dialogue. I found it very uplifting, especially in light of the terrible news coverage which hourly seems to bring worse messages to us of conflict. The speakers were inspiring and certainly gave much food for thought.”

Summing up the day, Arezoo Farahzad, Chair Plymouth Centre for Faiths and Cultural Diversity, said: “The city of Plymouth may not have the rich cultural diversity that other UK cities enjoy but it is by no means a stranger to Interfaith dialogue and with each coming year the need for continuing and expanding discourse grows more essential.”

“Over lunch and throughout the afternoon, those gathered re-explored the central spiritual themes of Islam and dispelled the common myths often attributed to it – particularly cultural practices that are mistakenly assumed to be central tenets of Islam.  The authors, who plan to hold similar gatherings in a number of cities around the country, were keen to explore how Islam is and can be an agent to promote respect, understanding, empathy, cooperation and acceptance of all beliefs.”

“The Muslim writings encourage its believers to “speak that which is good unto men …” and throughout the afternoon discussion ensued on the importance of removing culture and politics from the spiritual practices of Islam and studying its holy writings in order to appreciate the sincerity of its teachings with our own eyes.”

“The event afforded followers of diverse religions a perfect opportunity to enjoy the companionship of each other in a true spirit of friendship and amity, with much good humour and laughter and a safe atmosphere to ask some very direct questions.”

“A timely reminder that our future as a community can indeed be more united, secure and radiant.”

Muslim Hands hopes to conduct similar events in different parts of the UK, in collaboration with community organisations.