Intra-faith panel discusses peaceful Islamic futures

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Thursday, February 28, 2013
by Ken Chitwood, Houston Chronicle 

Mike Ghouse, moderator, and panelists from the Ahmadiyya, Sunni, Shia and 
WD Mohammed traditions of Islam stand together at the Boniuk Center’s
 Intra-faith panel on Islam (Photo: Mike Ghouse)

In the decade since 9/11 there has been increased discussion of the importance of “interfaith cooperation.” The likes of Eboo Patel and others are calling for expanded dialogue between people of differing faiths – Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, the non-religious and more. But what of “intra-faith” dialogue, a conversation between various denominations, or sects, of one faith?

On Thursday February 21, 2013 at Rice University’s Boniuk Center, an event sponsored by the Asia Society of Texas took place that invited various facets of the Islamic tradition together for an interchange across sectarian lines. Participating in the event were representatives from the Ahmadiyya, Sunni, Shia and WD Muhammed Islamic groups. It was the first event of its kind.

The Boniuk Center for Religious Tolerance, “is dedicated to nurturing tolerance among people of all and no faiths.” Supporters of, and scholars at, the center seek, “to understand the conditions that make peaceful coexistence possible and to promote these conditions locally, nationally and throughout the world.” Similarly, the Asia Society is, “dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context.”

According to Mike Ghouse, active pluralist, Muslim and moderator for the event, “this dialogue was not an effort to reconcile the differences, or find convergence.” He said, “it was merely to begin a process of sharing where Muslims agree or disagree, and honestly acknowledging our differences without judgment.”

Interfaith cooperation and dialogue does not insist that all religions are the same at the core, and so, “intra-faith” discussions such as this also acknowledge that differences in faith and practice among Muslims cannot be watered down. There are real disagreements and exclusive truth claims that come into conflict with one another. However, in interfaith, as well as “intra-faith,” dialogue, all parties seek to discuss common values and avenues for shared cooperation.

Ghouse said, “The panel made every effort not to appease any one, but to state their own position politely without ever considering the other opinion to be anything less.” “It was not an effort to convert the other, but rather our struggle (jihad) to understand each other genuinely,” he said. As an example, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) was raised up for the participants to emulate.

The program consisted of greetings from representatives of the Asia Society and the Boniuk Center before Mr. Ghouse took the podium to offer introductory remarks and invite participants and attendees into a process of what he called, “genuine dialogue.”

Preceding his questions, Ghouse noted that, “Islam is a universal faith that has embraced every race, ethnicity, language and culture” and yet, “at this precise juncture in history,” scores of Muslims from Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, and other traditions are persecuted the world over. He noted that this dialogue is a pilot attempt at dialogue to defeat such hostility.

The participants – Imam Azhar Haneef, Imam Wazir Ali, Imam Moustafa al-Qazwini and Imam Dr. Zia Shaikh – responded to questions such as, “Has living in America affected the outlook and separation of culture and religion; what does the next generation think about these differences; and what does it mean to lead a righteous life?

Shahed Ahmed, a representative of, and advocate for, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, was happy to have his group participate and be represented by Imam Azhar Haneef, vice president of the community in the U.S. Ahmadiyya Islam was founded 120 years ago by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who modern followers believe to be a reformer and Messiah, foretold by the Prophet Mohammed, who came to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace. They are persecuted in places such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh for what some Muslims of other traditions consider heretical beliefs.

“As an ostracized denomination in Islam, it’s important that we engage other Muslims in a more meaningful and powerful way,” said Ahmed. He said, “We need platforms like this to build bridges in order to allow pluralism to thrive and serve as a model for countries that otherwise close their doors on religious freedom.”

Ghouse agreed with Ahmed and said, “This event is critical to setting the tone of dialogue among Muslims.” He also said the event was a “God-given opportunity” for education and motivation among the Muslim community.

Still, he tempered his optimism, and that of others, and said the panel, and surrounding events such as a shared dinner, was just the beginning.

“By the end of 2020, there will not be a major workplace in America or India or elsewhere where you will not find people of different faiths, cultures, ethnicities, races, nationalities or social backgrounds working, eating, playing, marrying and doing things together,” said Ghouse.

To that end he said, “we need to prepare ourselves for those eventualities to prevent possible conflicts and lay a good foundation for nurturing goodwill.” He hopes that such an event, constituted among Muslims of varying ilk, was a step in such a direction.

*Follow Ken Chitwood (@kchitwood) for more on religion & culture

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