Islam and Interfaith Dialogue Some Observations

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Jay Willoughby

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Abstract

On March 21, 2014, Seyed Amir Akrami, a visiting Iranian scholar at the Eastern
Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA, visited the headquarters of
the International Institute of Islamic Thought. He holds a PhD in the philosophy
of religion (McGill University), as well as a BA and an MA in Islamic
theology and mysticism (University of Tehran).
In his opening remarks he stated that with the end of the Cold War, the
closer relations between politics and religion necessitates interfaith relations.
Realizing this, the West (especially the United States) has undertaken an unprecedented
step: establishing centers for religion and diplomacy. Akrami considers
this a very positive development. Another reason for this new approach
was Samuel Huntington’s (d. 2008) “clash of civilizations” theory, which upset
many Muslims. What is often forgotten, however, is that Huntington also
called for dialogue. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran responded to this
by launching his 2001 “dialogue of civilizations” initiative. Akrami maintains
that political and economic polarization is being replaced by cultures, of which
religion is a very important part. Given that Islam and Christianity are the
world’s two largest religions, it is more practical to focus on them than trying
to start a dialogue with all religions at this time.
The second part of his presentation consisted of several historical observations
related to Christian views of Islam, Muslim views of other religions
(especially Christianity), and how best to approach/view these two religions’
relationship. John of Damascus (d. 750), an early Christian scholar of Islam
noted for his largely polemical works, viewed Islam as a Christian heresy.
Centuries later, the Crusades poisoned Muslim-Christian relations. But, importantly,
part of the reason for this military onslaught was the great schism
of 1054 that split Christendom between the Catholic Church (Rome) and the
Orthodox Church (Constantinople).
Normal Daniel’s Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Oxford:
Oneworld, 1993) is a very good source for these negative views. Among them
are the following: (1) Muhammad was a cardinal who wanted to become the
pope. When he failed in this attempt, he became a heretic; (2) Muhammad
trained a dove or a bird to sit on his shoulder in order to deceive/delude his
followers into thinking that he was being inspired; and (3) Dante, in his Divine
Comedy, called Muhammad an imposter and liar and therefore placed him in
the eighth circle of hell ...

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