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Critical Challenges in Interreligious Dialogue

by A. Rashied Omar


An Islamic authority warns that religious pluralism, unlike religious plurality, is not a given fact in any society. It constitutes an ongoing process in which different religious traditions learn to interact positively with each other.

For those interreligious activists who have long campaigned that interreligious dialogue should be accorded a more prominent place in the programs of religious institutions, the irony of the post-September 11, 2001 reality is both painful and joyful. Interreligious activities have indeed ascended to near the top of the agenda of a number of religious institutions all over the world, but this was triggered by the abominable attacks on the United States that have only served to reinforce the widespread public perception that religion, and in particular Islam, is linked to violence in some special way. The critical challenge facing interreligious advocates is how to sustain and transform this renewed interreligious energy and solidarity into a global grassroots interreligious movement for peace and justice. Having been intimately connected with the interreligious movement in my home country, South Africa, I will attempt to draw out four key challenges for deepening interreligious dialogue and solidarity from my experience in that context.1

The Challenge of Religious Pluralism

One of the most important challenges facing the interreligious movement is to nurture a culture of religious pluralism. But what do we understand by the ubiquitous term "religious pluralism"?

There is an important distinction between religious plurality and religious pluralism. Religious plurality refers to religious diversity, which is an inescapable reality of our globalized world. This, however, does not automatically imply religious pluralism. Facts and figures about different religions in a country refer to religious plurality, and should not be confused with the concept of religious pluralism, which relates to the quality of religious coexistence between the diverse religions within a specific context. In other words, religious plurality informs us about cold census statistics and religious demography, while religious pluralism presents us with a story of human interactions. Donald Shockley succinctly captures the nuance between these two concepts in the following quote:

"Religious pluralism must be distinguished from religious diversity, the reality and presence of a variety of types and forms of religious expressions. This is minimal religious pluralism. The essence of religious pluralism is not regalia but relationships. What is the relation of the content of the various faiths in a community? What is their common history, if any? What are their status and power relations? How do they relate to each other? What are some common humanity efforts that can be planned and worked on jointly?"2

Religious pluralism, unlike religious plurality, is not a given fact in any society. It constitutes an ongoing process in which different religious traditions learn to interact positively with each other. Without relating to each other in a cordial and harmonious manner, different religions will not be able to engender an ethos of religious pluralism.

Even more important, however, there is a need for interreligious activists not only to positively embrace the plurality of religious traditions that pervade our globalized world (what we may call extrinsic pluralism) but to incorporate pluralism into the very notion of a religious tradition (what we refer to as intrinsic pluralism).

No religious tradition likes to acknowledge diversity within its own ranks, more especially if it has to take place in the context of interreligious dialogue. Applying this to the Islamic context, we need to understand that there is no (one) monolithic Islam in the world but a number of diverse articulations or understandings of Islam, frequently locked in fierce rivalry in their claims to be the privileged, orthodox, and authentic voice of Islam. There are many alternative theological, jurisprudential, and cultural expressions of Islam. All of this polyphony of voices needs to be heard and engaged with if we are indeed serious about religious pluralism.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivations

A second important challenge confronting the interreligious movement is the lack of its ability to transcend the extrinsic motivations on which interreligious solidarity is sought. It is frequently external factors, for example, the need to fight crime and deadly conflict, or to do damage control after provocative attacks on members of another faith community by one or other radical factions, that provide the impetus for interreligious cooperation. There are numerous examples the world over of interreligious cooperation developing in response to situations of conflict. The upsurge and proliferation of interreligious activities in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on America falls squarely within this category.

Now, these extrinsic motivations may be helpful in getting an interreligious dialogue started, but they are insufficient to sustain the movement in the longer term. In order for the interreligious movement to become self-propelling and sustainable, it needs to find intrinsic reasons from within faith commitments for promoting good relations with people of other religions.

It is my considered view that intrinsic reasons need to precede external reasons for authentic religious pluralism to be procured. Why do we always need to wait for conflict and violence to overwhelm us before we feel the need to develop healthy interreligious and cross-cultural relationships? If intrinsic reasons were to precede external ones, we would not only be contributing to the resolution of existing conflict situations but also be going a long way toward preventing their occurring in the first place. In fact, a far more genuine and permanent religio-pluralistic culture and ethos could emerge. Interreligious activists need more than ever before to recover intrinsic motivations for living in harmony and cooperation with each other. There is, moreover, a critical need for a religio-pluralistic ethos to transform itself into a culture with a long-term relevance to our conflict-ridden world.

Intrinsic motivations lie at the heart of genuine and sustainable interreligious solidarity. Intrinsic motivations, however, continue to be the most elusive goal for interreligious movements all over the world. But what exactly are intrinsic motivations all about?

Intrinsic motivation deals with challenging questions of intentionality. Why and for what purpose are you motivated for the encounter with the "other"? Is the purpose merely instrumental? For example, is there a need for interreligious dialogue if there is no conflict or external problem to be dealt with collaboratively? Intrinsic motivations for interreligious solidarity, moreover, deal with the difficult and challenging questions of evangelism. Does one engage in interreligious solidarity in order to convert the other to one's faith? Can one get involved in interreligious solidarity with a clear conscience? Is the interreligious encounter legitimated by or compromising our deep-seated beliefs and theologies? These difficult questions cannot simply be swept under the carpet. They are of primary importance because, unless they are clearly and unequivocally answered, we run the risk of having an outwardly agreeable dialogue that does not dispose of the mistrust and suspicion and in the end is superficial and does not lead us to the goal of peace building. Building interreligious trust should be one of the most important goals of interreligious movements.

Interreligious Language and Terminology

A third challenge facing the interreligious movement is the question of language in both its literal and symbolic forms. The interreligious encounter is not only biased by the language within which it occurs but also conditioned by a powerful symbolic language, namely the predominant categories of thought within which it occurs.

The persistence of interreligious interlocutors in employing categories of thought that are rooted in Western Christian paradigms does not help in interpreting present-day developments within non-Christian religious traditions. In fact it obscures reality even further and remains as yet another obstacle in what has been correctly defined as the critical task in the aftermath of September 11, namely, that of "building bridges of understanding" between religious communities.

I would like to provide a provocative example of this. Muslim scholars have long objected to the inanity of confusing the two terms jihad and holy war. They have pointed out that etymologically they are not the same, since holy war translates as al-harb al-muqaddasah in Arabic. Both classical as well as contemporary Muslim scholars have chosen to appropriate and interpret the multivalent Islamic concept of jihad in diverse ways. For some it simply means striving to lead a good Muslim life. Another might identify jihad as working hard to spread the message of Islam. For a third, it might be supporting the struggle of oppressed Muslims, and for many it means refining one's character.

Recently, one of America's most vocal Islamic legal scholars, Khaled Abou El Fadl, emphatically stated the case when he argued that holy war "is not an expression used by the Qur'anic text or Muslim theologians interpreting the Qur'an. In Islamic theology, war is never holy; either it is justified or not."3 Moreover, jihad is not directed at other faiths. In mystical (sufi) traditions of Islam the greatest form of jihad, personal jihad, is to purify the soul and refine the disposition. This is regarded as the far more urgent and momentous struggle, and it is based on a prophetic tradition from Muhammad (hadith).

Sufis have traditionally understood this greater form of jihad to be the spiritual struggle to discipline the lower impulses and base instincts in human nature. The renowned thirteenth-century Sufi scholar Jalal al-Din Rumi articulated such an understanding of jihad when he wrote: "The prophets and saints do not avoid spiritual struggle. The first spiritual struggle they undertake is the killing of the ego and the abandonment of personal wishes and sensual desires. This is the greater jihad."4

What I am essentially arguing is that a deep sensitivity to and appreciation of the differences in our religious languages may assist us in building bridges of understanding between interfaith communities. In other words, to fairly interpret what sacred concepts and rituals symbolize and mean, we have to hear them in the context of their religious paradigms in a process of mutual illumination.

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Approaches

Last but not least, one of the more pressing challenges facing the interreligious movement is how to bring other members of the clergy, and more important, the rank and file, along in the interreligious ethos. Often, interreligious dialogue takes place at the level of the top leadership. The challenge for interreligious activists continues to be how to bring the proverbial grassroots along in this interreligious culture. There is a real risk that the wonderful benefits that accrue from interreligious dialogue may not filter down to the rank and file.

An unfortunate example of this top-down approach comes from my own country, South Africa. Interreligious dialogue and solidarity has been one of the major beneficiaries of the post-apartheid dispensation. The new nonracial and democratic government under the moral leadership of first president Nelson Mandela has worked hard to sustain and further develop the legacy of interreligious solidarity forged in the struggle against apartheid. In response to a call by Mandela, religious leaders have set up an interreligious Forum of Religious Leaders to liaise between government and religious communities. Ironically, however, the post-apartheid South African state's overt policy of religious pluralism and interreligious harmony has not been sufficiently buttressed by religious leaders at the civil-society level, and consequently it has not sufficiently filtered down to the grassroots. This is an anomaly that interreligious activists in South Africa are aware of and are working hard to correct.

Global Grassroots Movement Needed

Without a doubt interreligious dialogue has become an important feature of our post-September 11, 2001, world. This is evidenced by the flourishing programs of global interreligious bodies, such as the World Conference of Religions for Peace and the Parliament of the World's Religions. The critical challenge facing the interreligious movement is how to transform this renewed interreligious energy into a global grassroots interreligious movement for peace and justice. In order for the interreligious movement to rise to this challenge, there is an urgent need for interreligious dialogue to get past what I have called cucumber sandwiches and samosas to the real business of truly loving and embracing "the other" as an extension of ourselves. I have tried to identify four critical challenges that need to be responded to if we are to move to a higher level of interreligious engagement and solidarity. The extent to which the interreligious movement is able to meet these challenges will have positive effects on its future trajectory and on world peace.

In conclusion, for me, the litmus test of "good" and "bad" religion is the extent to which we are willing to embrace the "other," whoever that other may be. We need to recognize our common humanity and see others as a reflection of ourselves. If we do not try to "know" the other, how can we ever "know" the divine?


1. A. Rashied Omar, "From Resistance to Reconstruction: Challenges Facing Muslim-Christian Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa," in Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa, ed. Benjamin F. Soares (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
2. Donald Shockley, Campus Ministry: The Church beyond Itself (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989).
3. Khaled Abou El Fadl, "The Place of Tolerance in Islam: On Reading the Qur'an - and Misreading It" (Boston Review, February 25, 2002).
4. William Chittick and Sachiko Murata, The Vision of Islam (New York: I. B. Taurus, 1996).



A. Rashied Omar, PhD, is a research scholar in Islamic studies and peace building at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana. In addition to being a university-based researcher and teacher, Dr. Omar puts theory into practice. He serves as the coordinating imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa.


This article was originally published in the October-December 2010 issue of Dharma World.

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