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Inter-cultural understanding and dialogue in Islamic perspective

Certain broad premises and principles, enshrined in the Holy Quran and the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) have a significant bearing on inter-cultural and inter-civilizational dialogue. These include an explicit recognition of religious and cultural diversity, a universalist and inclusionary view of divinity and of prophecy, freedom of belief and conscience, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, protection of the rights of minorities, and an emphasis on the creation of a culture of peace and amity.

Islam takes due cognizance of racial, ethnic and religious diversities that characterize human societies across the world and holds that these diversities are divinely ordained (Quran 11:118; 30:22; 25:54). In the Islamic view, God is not a racial or parochial deity who is concerned only about Muslims but the Lord of the universe and of all humankind. Furthermore, divine presence is not confined to specific sites or modes of worship. Thus the Quran says: "Had God not checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" (22:40).

Islam's universalist and inclusionary orientation is also reflected in its view of prophecy. The Quran says that God has sent down prophets to all peoples and to all parts of the world (35:24). A Tradition of the Prophet (sAw) says that there have been as many as 124,000 prophets at different points of time. Muslims are required to believe not only in the prophecy of Muhammad but in that of all other divine messengers. Likewise, they have to believe, in addition to the Quran, in all other divine scriptures.

Peaceful coexistence, tolerance and accommodation are among the cardinal features of the Islamic faith. The Quran explicitly maintains that there is no place in Islam for compulsion in religious matters (2:256; 109:6). Though Islam is against idol-worship, Muslims are advised not to revile those who worship idols or images (Quran 6:108). The Prophet is advised to invite people to the path of righteousness and guidance, not through intimidation and coercion, but in a gentle and amiable manner.

Thus the Quran says: "Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in the best of ways" (16:125). It is significant to note that when God asked Prophet Moses (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) to go to the Pharaoh in order to invite him to the path of righteousness, he was told to "speak to him mildly, perchance he may heed the warning or fear God" (Quran 20:44).

The followers of Semitic religions, especially Jews and Christians (who are described in the Quran as People of the Book), share some fundamental articles of faith, notably monotheism, with Muslims. The Quran emphasizes that the tenet of monotheism should provide the cornerstone of dialogue and reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims (3:64). The special affinity between Muslims and Jews and Christians is reflected in the permission accorded to inter-marriages between them and the permissibility for Muslims of the flesh of animals slaughtered by Jews and Christians (5:5). The attitude and behaviour of the Prophet towards Jews and Christians in Madina exhibited remarkable tolerance, broad-mindedness and compassion. Some Jewish families lived in his neighbourhood in Madina. If one of their children fell sick, the Prophet would make it a point to visit the distressed family as a gesture of good will and sympathy. If the funeral of a Jew happened to pass by while he was around, he would stand up as a mark of respect for the deceased.

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