I remember when I was a teenager in Tehran the following verse from the Qur’an was frequently recited after prayers at Al-Anbiyâ, our local mosque: “The Messenger believes in that which has been revealed unto him from his Lord and (so do) the believers. Each one believes in God and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers – We make no distinction between any of His messengers – and they say: we hear, and we obey. (Grant us) Your forgiveness, our Lord. Unto You is the journeying” (2:285).
This verse, like many others in the Qur’an, puts great emphasis on the uniformity of all the prophets and messengers from God, leading us to believe that we belong to one great community of faith which includes all believers throughout the history of mankind.
It was only later that I realised that this idea of uniformity of all divine religions is a very profound aspect of the Islamic conception of monotheism. Islam, like other Abrahamic faiths, teaches us to believe in the unity of God. He is the only Creator and He is the only One to worship.
This means that it’s not only the universe that must be harmonious and consistent, but the divine revelations as well. If divine messages are sent to mankind by the one and only God, then these messages must be identical in essence. Of course, depending on varying conditions and factors, some details may change, and the depth and the extent of the ideas expressed in the scriptures may change through better human understanding. And how wonderful it is to find, upon close inspection, that the essence is always one and the same indeed!
It should be noted that the call for this unity of outlook is not limited to a Muslim audience. The Qur’an invites all believers, including Christians and Jews, to unify their efforts and concentrate on common ground: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to an agreement between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God” (3:64).
One of the best means of achieving this unity is to know each other, to overcome historical prejudices that prevent objective understanding of one another and to build on commonalities. As the 7th century Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and caliph of all Muslims, said, “People are enemies of what they do not know.”
For any sincere believer, failure to establish a genuine and constructive dialogue with people of other faiths is a grave shortcoming that in today’s interconnected world is, moreover, alarming. We must all take our responsibility to members of our sister faiths seriously, especially in places where we constitute the majority and can be proactive in this matter toward our minority brethren.
By reaching out to members of other religions, especially those among them who are vulnerable, we have an opportunity to partake in the values of love and hospitality that are so central to the Abrahamic faiths. But to do so, we must first extend a simple invitation:
Shall we speak?
* Mohammad Ali Shomali is Dean of Post-graduate Studies for International Students at Jamiat al-Zahra, the Islamic university for women in Qom and co-editor of Catholic-Shi`a Engagement: Reason and Faith in Theory and Practice (2006).This article is part of a series on spiritual leaders and interfaith dialogue written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).