How Interreligious Dialogue Can Bridge the Gap between Muslims and Christians

Interview on Matters India

Fr. Victor Edwin, who teaches Islam in Delhi’s Vidyajyoti College and several other Catholic theological institutes, has embarked on a new mission – help Christians and Muslims shed their misconceptions about each other and work together for peace and harmony. As a first step, he takes his students to Muslim places and invites Muslims to Catholic institutions. The 51-year-old priest is the elected secretary of the Islamic Studies Association. He also edits the association’s journal – Salaam. He shared with Matters India about his mission and vision.

Why do you take your students to Muslim places?

One might wonder what a student-scholar in Islam has to do in a Catholic theological Institute. Often I’m asked: What do Islamic studies do with Catholic theology? I would say that in a pluralistic world, for a wholesome training in Catholic theology, one cannot ignore careful studies of the belief systems of the different religions and a positive engagement with the truth claims of the followers of different religious traditions. If theological training has to be at the service of humanity, it has to respect the religious conviction of every person. Respect for others necessarily demands respect for the religious convictions of others.

Moreover studying religions is integral to theology of religions which comes under fundamental theology.

As a teacher, I present courses such as ‘Popular Islam’, ‘Sufism’, and ‘Christian-Muslim Dialogue’. The course outcome visualises that the students become familiar with the faith and practices of Muslims; turn away from the many prejudices and stereo-type images that Christians harbor about Muslims and Islam. Also, it help Muslims, who on their part are encumbered by many prejudices against Christians, discover theological common grounds between these two Abrahamic cousins.

Therefore, the courses are designed to have both classroom presentations as well as field based interaction with Muslims in diverse contexts. I have found the courses help some students see dialogue in creative ways. One is reminded of how (renowned theologian) Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) defined dialogue — a pilgrimage where one encounters the difference of the other to discover oneself.

How do you select people and places for the visits?

I have made a number of good friends among Muslims in places where I go to give the course on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. I am grateful to Professor Akhtarul Wasey and Dr. Packiam T. Samuel, the director of the Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad. Some of these friends are scholars while others are religious leaders. There are some mystics and social activists. They are all men and women of different walks of life. I visit them before I take the students as I deeply believe that every time I meet them, I learn something new. Then I accompany the students.

What has been the response from the Muslims?

Muslims welcome Christians into their places of worship, religious and educational institutions, and their homes. I have come to learn that Muslims welcome us and feel a closeness with us as the Holy Qur’an teaches them that ‘Christians are closer to you’. The Holy Qur’an calls Christians as the People of the Book. One can say that Muslims recognize a Quranic foundation for welcoming Christians in their midst.

Recently I took 12 students of theology from the regional theology center Arul Kadal, Chennai, to a well-known Madrasa (Muslim religious school) Jamia Darusalaam, Umrabad, Ambur, to experience the meeting Muslims. One of the senior professors of the Madrasa took us around the senior classes. He told the Muslim students pointing to us that they (Christians) are missionaries (Daii) like you. They study for several years. They come to share with you the ‘closeness’ that the Holy Qur’an mentions. He recognized us rightly as missionaries. It’s important. To my mind, it’s an important comment. I’m convinced that coming together as missionaries we give witness to one another’s faith. I was reminded of the mystical comment of Jesuit Father Victor Courtois, a pioneer in Christian-Muslim relations, who said that “In giving witness to one another’s faith we both Muslims and Christians will come to recognize the features of our heavenly Father in one another”.

How do your students react to all this? Do seminaries agree to expose their students to Muslims? Do they put any conditions?

They are open to explore. I have never experienced any concerns with regard to this exposure. Well, dialogical engagements are founded on mutual respect and trust, and not on conditions.

How do these socio-cultural interactions lead you and your students to find theological foundation for dialogue?

It’s an important question. I recognize over the years the socio-cultural and religious interaction help to discover the theological foundations. In the theology sessions that follow the exposure, we recognize the theological foundations for dialogue.

What do you do at a Muslim place?

I request Muslims to share with us “what it is to be a Muslim today”. In other words, how the sources of their religious life — the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith (the Traditions of the Prophet) — challenge them to live as sincere Muslims. I also request our students to ask whatever questions they want to ask. Just two instructions that I give to them are: ask questions in a sensitive way and no arguments, please. The principle that underpins this approach is to know Islam from Muslims.

Do Muslims come to Christian places, especially seminaries?

I have invited Muslims to Vidyajyoti for Iftar. They have come. If Christians invite them certainly they will come. Are we open for this is the moot question.

The Church’s interreligious activities are limited to seminars and talks. How can the Church make it more effective?

The Catholic Church teaches four kinds of dialogue: dialogue of life, dialogue of action, dialogue of theological exchange, and dialogue of religious experience. Christians need more imagination to engage with others in dialogue that leads all to work for the common good of all.