Discussing Religion with the People of the Scripture
Engaging the Jews and Christians in meaningful dialogue is something that we need to do. Those who wish to participate in this activity, however, should observe some general guidelines:
1. Any attempt at dialogue must be able to practically address what Islam is, explain its principles and issues properly, and demonst…rate clearly Islam’s position on Judaism and Christianity. It must be able to do so in a scholarly manner, making reference to the Qur’ân and Sunnah. It should be able to show the difference between what Islam teaches about how Muslims should relate to the Jews and Christians and what is actually going on in Muslim society.
2. It should take into consideration the things that these religions have in common, like the concept of divine revelation, prophethood, and the need to follow the guidance of the Prophets. Then, the necessary consequences of these beliefs we hold in common should be demonstrated. This is what Allah does in the Qur’ân when He says: “Say: O people of the scripture! Come to common terms between us and you: that we worship none but Allah, that we associate no partners with Him, that we erect not from among ourselves Lords besides Allah.” [Sûrah ?l `Imrân: 64]
This is an excellent rational approach of bringing two things together and showing how those two different things can be seen as one. The same approach was used by Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) when he wrote to the Roman governor Heracles. This should then be followed by the rectification of false notions in accordance with the teachings of the Final Message.
3. The other religion should not be dismissed or declared invalid from the get go as if it were a foregone conclusion. It does not matter how false the other’s ideas might be. When engaging in a dialogue or discussion, it must be brought forth as the result of carefully reasoned arguments and not be treated like a first principle. There is a big difference between proving the falsehood of some religious teaching using valid methods of argument and merely taking sides. The latter approach may work when addressing Muslims, but it is not good for engaging in dialogue with the Jews and Christians.
4. Convincing the other party should be achieved in conformity with the basic principles of Islam, using a universally understood, rational approach to support those principles. In a discussion, it is necessary to use an approach that by the force of reason is capable of compelling other party to accept one’s argument. This is why the Messengers were supported with various signs and miracles.
5. The circumstances of the Jews and Christians should be brought out in discussion, like their various sectarian differences on fundamental issues of belief, both historic and current.
6. It is important that the issues discussed in dialogue are not issues accepted by Muslims on the basis of faith alone. They must be issues that can be approached in discussion by those who do not share that faith.
7. Among the important topics to address in the early stages of discussion is the position of Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them both) in Islam as well as Islam’s recognition of the origin that Judaism and Christianity have in divine revelation, which is the reason why Islamic Law distinguishes between the People of the Scripture and other non-Muslims.
8. Every attempt should be made to free the dialogue from guarded partisanship, since this should not be allowed to constrict the tone of the discussion.
9. The Christians especially should be addressed regarding the thorny and difficult teachings of their faith, especially since those teachings make up a central part of their beliefs.
10. Attention should be given to the failure of their faith on a practical, societal level, especially the difficulties they experienced with respect to reconciling religion and science.
11. The scientific knowledge found in the revelations of Islam – the Qur’ân and Sunnah – should be brought up, like the scientific miracles of the Qur’ân. However, when discussing these issues, only clear and unambiguous scientific references should be brought up, not those that are speculative or require a bit of interpretation.
12. The best manner of speaking should be sought out for any given set of circumstances. Allah mentions this in the Qur’ân in a number of places. Allah says: “And dispute not with the People of the Scripture except in the best way, unless it be with those who are doing wrong.” [Sûrah al-`Ankabût: 46]
What I have outlined here is suitable only for engaging in dialogue with Jews and Christians. These guidelines are not suitable for dealing with other non-Muslims, nor are they good for dealing with disputes with other Muslims. Each of these situations has to be approached in a different way.
There are general rules for engaging in dialogue that are applicable to everyone. The arguments given by the Qur’ân are the best of arguments, with respect to their certainty as well as their inherent strength. They are founded in universal principles that, once accepted, lead directly to an acceptance of the implications behind them.
With respect to Christian sources, there are a number of works available about them written by Muslim scholars, like al-Jawâb al-Sahîh by Ibn Taymiyah, Hidâyah al-Hiyârâ fî Ajwibah al-Yahûd wa al-Nasârâ by Ibn al-Qayyim, as well as the relevant chapters of al-Fisalby Ibn Hazm, al-Shahrastânî’s al-Milal wa al-Nihal, and al-Râzî’s I`tiqâdât Firaq al-Muslimîn wa al-Mushrikîn. There are also many recent works that discuss contemporary Christianity. Among the most well known of these works are the books of Muhammad Abû Zahrah. It must be mentioned, though, that his works are not free from defects, and Allah has charge over us all.
In any event, the best discussion of the Christians and their beliefs is to be found in the Qur’ân. This is something accessible to all Muslims. Whoever reflects on what the Qur’ân says regarding the Christians and the People of the Scripture will acquire sufficient knowledge and understanding on the matter.
And Allah knows best.
by Shaykh Salman al-Oadah