Understanding Interfaith Dialogue: A few Critical Questions — Neha Dabhade


NEHA DABHADE | Clarion India

RECENTLY the issue of constructing temple of Lord Ram on the disputed site where the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya once stood and was demolished in 1992 is hotly debated. In fact, the construction of the temple is touted as an article of faith and the litmus test to prove respect for sentiments of the ‘Hindus’. This demand becomes all the more threatening when there is aggressive mobilization to intimidate the democratic institutions like the judiciary and also the communities perceived as ‘others’. This threat resulted in some Muslim resident families from Ayodhya fleeing from their homes out of fear. This is but just one of the many examples of manipulations and contestations that are played out in the name of religion in India which is proving a strain on the peaceful and harmonious inter-community relations in India.

In this context, one of the solutions sought is to establish inter-faith dialogue and through this dialogue the understanding of the different religions. Such interventions have significant import given the intensive polarization that is taking place in the Indian society notwithstanding our claim that India is the biggest democracy, a secular democracy. Thus understanding religions, its symbols, message, liberal discourses within each religion becomes imperative and has the potential to be cultural resource for fostering compassion and peace. However, it would be misplaced optimism and perhaps even a folly to believe that by speaking about the positives of our own religions in a closed conference room, one can establish any meaningful dialogue or let alone, understanding the essence of religion. Any sincere attempt at interfaith dialogue will require an earnest reflection of our own religion, the power structures it nurtures, the inequalities it institutionalizes and also the injustices it may perpetuate.

So far the common understanding of the model of interfaith dialogue is dominantly one where commonality in terms of the liberal and positive messages that the different religions and religious scriptures have are discussed at length. The goodness in each religion is emphasized and the scriptural resources are highlighted as a foundation for establishing harmonious relationship with other religious communities. This model has its limitation. It doesn’t necessarily translate into practice in the times of conflicts.

Each of us is conditioned in believing that our systems of faith and values are without a fault. They are to be blindly followed if not glorified. This lack of self criticism is a hindrance in approaching other religious communities with the sense of justice when the interactions are strained and largely the discourse punctuated with violence. However an alternative model can be explored where the critical gaze is directed within or internally.

The interfaith dialogue should help each community understand their own traditions, faith, beliefs and value system in the light of the other religions. The critical understanding of other religions leads to collective wisdom to reflect internally into our own religions. Thus, my participation in an interfaith consultation at the end of last month was a very enriching experience for me since it opened avenues of learning and assiduous critical reflection into our own faiths. The Consultation called Seeking Life Together: Interfaith Resistance to Religious Bigotry and Discrimination based on Caste and Gender was organized by Collective of Dalit Ecumenical Christian Scholars (CODECS) in collaboration with the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College (MBCBC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Some of the important reflections and also challenges that the meet deliberated upon were crucial. They are an obstacle in the way of justice and equality. There is also an intersectionality of identities at play and for a nuanced understanding of interfaith dialogue and relations it becomes imperative to peel layers of discrimination that institutionalized religions perpetrate with the help of scriptures and normative narratives. I have listed a few down below.

The Question of Gender:

The question of gender equality is central to all religions and unfortunately been a grim one. Women have been discriminated in the socio-cultural realm by citing justifications from religious narratives. At the seminar too, the question of subordination of women was raised very strongly. Different speakers tried to deconstruct patriarchy and patriarchal structures/ understanding of scriptures. Making a case for Dalit women in the Church, it was argued that Dalit women are “Dalit within the Dalit” thus pointing out how the axis of gender and caste lead to double discrimination of Dalit women in the Church.

While support is sought from a patriarchal understanding or interpretation of biblical scriptures to entrench the lower status of women within the family and society at large, the plight of Dalit women becomes all the more aggravated due to caste identity. What perhaps was most moving and inspiring was the narrative of a Dalit woman reverend herself who explained this oppression citing her personal journey. She explained that women face strong resistance when they try to penetrate the Church administrative structures which largely till date remain male dominated.

Women’s emancipation is viewed as a threat to the social order understood to be formed by God. This resistance becomes stronger if the woman is Dalit. There was a demand to deconstruct the understanding of biblical scriptures which legitimizes hierarchy and subordination of women.

The status of Muslim women evinced intense debates and interest. Two perspectives emerged- one that the scriptures are a source of liberation and provides space for negotiating rights of Muslim women and the other more critical which questioned the very scriptures which are used to subordinate the women. These perspectives came from the lived experiences of women who have been working with Muslim communities in South Asia. The women’s organizations working on issues of Muslim women are grappling with the discrimination faced by Muslim women in the areas of marriage, property, education and their overall socio-economic status in the society. The orthodoxy often cites from the Quran to justify this discrimination.

However it is equally true that there are also liberal interpretations of the Quran which have provided spaces to women to negotiate for their rights in day to day lives. But more often than not, the vested clergy and elite in the community interpret the scriptures in a way to subjugate the women.

There was a strong argument about how the discrimination faced by Muslim women is manipulated by communal forced to stigmatize and demonize Islam as a religion and also the Muslim community as being ‘backward’ and ‘fundamentalist’. This is an added pressure on Muslim women then to sweep their questions and demands for reforms under the carpet and in effect doing more harm to their cause of justice and equality. The struggles of Muslim women are at the crossroads of communal politics and patriarchy faced within the community.

It will be misleading to think that identity politics is affecting the lives of Muslim women alone and pushing them deeper in the folds of patriarchy. Women in Hindu communities are also used as pawns to play out communal politics by firmly placing them in the realms of homes to strengthen the discourses of women being reproducers of children and narratives of hyper-masculine nationalism. The Hindu women are mobilized by communal forces to construct the exclusionist narratives of nationalism where Muslims are portrayed as the common enemy. The Hindu women are misled in believing that they are working to “save” their religion by indulging in propaganda of hatred.

But this political agenda despite being based on hatred gives women the bargaining power to participate in the public sphere. They are out on the streets for example to stop the other women who wish to enter into the Sabarimala temples or shielding their male relatives when they participate in communal violence against the “others”. Their concerns of equality within families, equal opportunities in terms of education and livelihoods and their agency in terms of marriages and relationships are sidelined or even opposed. But their resistance is co-opted. With the orthodoxy within the communities and communal politics, fault lines are sharpened. Therefore reforms and a critical reflection on this orthodoxy are absolutely essential if there has to be interfaith dialogue.

The question of caste:

Caste system in India has seeped into other religions though it’s not integral to their theology but in practice it defines a great deal. The caste system which is a system of graded hierarchy or inequality has shaped the Hindu communities. The Dalits who were at the receiving end of the practice of untouchability, discrimination and dehumanization for centuries tried to find alternatives to Hindu religion which Ambedkar critiqued in no uncertain terms. Some of the Dalits turned to Islam and Christianity in their quest for equality and acceptance. Though there were conversions, persons who converted couldn’t escape their caste identity. There were conversions into Islam and Christianity from upper caste Hindu religions too. This privileged group drew caste boundaries within the other religions too and reproduced brahminical culture and discourses. Caste system came to haunt the Dalits in Islam and Christianity too. Thus it is not surprising that there are separate churches for Dalit Christians or separate mosques for Dalit Muslims.

Though there is no notion of purity and pollution in Islam and Christianity, the condition of Pasmanda Muslims and Dalit Christians is appalling. The philosophy of caste is quite contradictory to the basic beliefs of Islam which explicitly emphasize on equality and universal brotherhood. But in practice, in some parts of the country there are separate mosques and burial grounds for non Ashraf Muslims.  Islam may be normatively egalitarian but actual-existing Islam in Indian conditions is deeply hierarchical. There is a need to democratize Islam in India and the interpretative traditions. The resistances of the Muslim Dalits and Christian Dalits lead to a larger question of democratization and forging a counter- hegemonic solidarity that have potentiality and prove as a powerful resource for more humane interfaith dialogue.

The question of inclusion:

This brings us to the question about what is the nature of religion. Which section or groups of the society can relate to religion? Religion has come to be over-determinist in the human society and values that govern the same. To that extent, religion is anthropocentric. However, religion was made for human beings and not vice-versa. Thus, one has to question the very basis of religion. Is the imagery of God congruent to that of a poor man? A black man? A Dalit? A woman? Does God in the present understanding and form really dialogue with a poor or unprivileged not conforming to the normal in the society? Is institutionalized religion really inclusive where it emphasizes on humility, simplicity, poverty? There are examples like Basavanna and other bhakti traditions along with Sufi saints who through their living exemplified poverty and labour. They were known popularly as Fakirs and mystics. Basavanna exalted physical labour into a religious ideology and weaved a counter narrative to caste driven brahminical society and morality.

Basavanna’s most famous vachana says:

 “The rich will make temple for Shiva,

What shall make temple for Shiva,

What shall I, A poor man do?

My legs are pillars,

The body the shrine the head of cupola of gold.

These thinkers and philosophers envisaged a different social order- one which was based on rationality, equality and justice. This was a sincere attempt at democratization of religion. Such values are most needed today where institutionalized religion is manipulated to privilege certain sections.

What should interfaith actually mean?

Interfaith dialogue is largely understood to be a process to promote tolerance of other religions. It is understood to grapple with the question as to how one is to instruct youth in the religious beliefs and values of their community, while encouraging them to be tolerant of beliefs and values deemed to be incompatible with their own. How is one to educate youth to have firm moral and faith convictions, while encouraging them to honor opposing positions? In this process, it is already presupposed that one’s own religion is liberal, inclusive and perfect. Interfaith dialogues eulogize institutional religions and focuses on so called progressive discourses within each religion. But hardly is religion itself or the idea of God ever looked at in a rational and critical manner.

One has to acknowledge that there exists fundamentalism in every religion and thus there is a scope and to that extent reforms are required in every religion. Through this acknowledgement, awareness and reflection on one’s own religion and values it promotes will emerge. This understanding then perhaps will manifest in everyday conduct and social order. The critical gaze instead of being on other religions should be projected within. Like Kabir very rightly pointed out about self reflection in his doha:

Bura jo dekhan main chala, bura na milaya koi

Jo man Khoja apna, toh mujhsa bura na koi

(I started searching for the devil but could not find anyone. When I searched inside me, realized, no one is more devilish than me)

This may translate in different sections of the society having a meaningful dialogue which will include the marginalized, their morality and value system, in turn making such interactions more humane.

One of the most touching incidents that I have known which shines through the spirit of interfaith in the true sense took place at St. Xaviers college in Mumbai where one of my colleagues, Irfan Engineer, was teaching a course on Islam. When the usual allocated classroom was unavailable to them to conduct one of the sessions, Irfan Engineer and the students opened the door of the chapel in the college premises to study the Holy Quran. The Church opened its doors for the study of Quran! In today’s troubled times torn with conflicts, polarization and Islamophobia, it was incredulous and encouraging to come across such examples. Interfaith dialogue comes through when different faiths constantly deconstruct and critique within their own structures and embrace the others to do the same. Interfaith dialogue is translating this into action and not looking the other way when your religion is perpetuating injustices.


Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

Share post:


More like this

As Jamiat Calls Kanwar Yatra Order Communal, BJP MLA Seeks Similar Directive in MP

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti also slammed the order, saying...

‘Attempt to Undermine Madrasas’: Muslim Bodies on Order to Shift Students to Schools

NEW DELHI – The All India Muslim Personal Law...

Shabana Mahmood Becomes England’s First Woman Muslim Lord Chancellor

Known for her shrewd advocacy and deep knowledge of...