Over the past thirty years Christian and Muslim calls for dialogue have been growing louder and louder. But the meaning and mode of dialogue has remained a sticky question. The problems of dialogue were eloquently presented by Mohamed Talbi in his article, "Unavoidable dialogue in a pluralist world, a personal account."(1)

Both in the Muslim and in the Christian "worlds" there is still a considerable ground anxiety over the majority's hegemony or the minority's subversion of the established faith. Accusations abound as to the advantages the other side has in political power or access to money (Arab petrol dollars/ Vatican-American millions) in pursuing their world conquest.

Many Muslims view Christian calls for dialogue as "the new trap of the old trappers". They find reinforcement of this view when they see Church documents putting dialogue in the context of mission, as a preliminary step towards proclamation of the Gospel. Christians too, at public meetings with Muslims, sometimes find themselves subjected to a triumphalistic trumpeting of the superiority of Islam. Christians and most individual Muslims (not traditional Muslim societies) uphold the principle that anyone is free to proclaim his faith to the other, and that the other is free to change his religion. But in practice any attempt at conversion is viewed as an affront. Christians and Muslims both find their own religion superior and look upon the other as, if not having a distorted view of God and man, at least as missing something very precious. This is in spite of the general view on both sides that those of the other faith can be saved and enter Paradise if they lead sincere and good lives, and that the best people are the most humble and sincere before their Lord.

Clearly, dialogue has its problems. Is there any way out? Since most of the problems arise from confusion about the aims of dialogue, I attempt here to distinguish these aims according to their various contexts, as a first step towards clearing the confusion.

Dialogue and dialogue

Dialogue is fundamentally a human relationship bridging religious differences. In fact, it covers a wide range of exchange, and considerable confusion and misunderstanding can result if the parties are not clear about what they are attempting to do.

  1. The foundation of all dialogue is a fundamental equality between the partners. This presupposes not merely tolerance (by the "superior", "correct" party), but true religious freedom. Thus the first kind of dialogue may have to be the demand for such freedom where it does not exist. We can call this "dialogue of protest" or "resistance" or even "endurance". This is not mentioned in the Vatican or WCC enumeration of the types of dialogue, but I see it as a true form of dialogue, a form of peace talks as a means of avoiding or resolving conflict.
  2. The next kind of dialogue is often called "dialogue of life", including personal exchanges on the problems, joys and sorrows of life, and a wide range of cooperation for the common good. Very often this is as far as both partners are prepared to go together, and probably 99% of inter-religious dialogue takes place at this level.
  3. A further more difficult step is for both parties to examine their faith to see what they share in common. This kind of dialogue can help clear away misunderstandings and distorted presentations of the other's faith, so as to expand this area of recognized common beliefs. Such dialogue, mostly confined to the area of `aqliyyt, or the rational foundations of religion, is not threatening. Although it is a task that only experts can carry out, their work can reach a wide audience in the form of popular presentations.
  4. While clearing away misunderstandings, the proponents of each faith necessarily must engage in a kind of negative apologetics. That is, they will try to show how the specific doctrines which make their religion different from the other, are not impossible or irrational. This is a delicate exercise, because most such doctrines are held purely on the basis of revelation (as sam`iyyt). Any dialogue about them must not be an attempt to prove that these doctrines are true and necessary; much less can it be an attempt to convince the other party to accept them. Acceptance can only come from faith. This kind of dialogue can help one to respect the other party's beliefs while differing from them.
  5. There is a further level of dialogue which cannot really be distinguished from proclamation. This is to argue for the reasonability of one's faith. Here we must be careful to distinguish two very different aims:
    1. One may try to show why it is reasonable to accept the revelation of a particular religion. This involves arguments of greater or lesser objective or subjective weight to show that Jesus' or Muhammad's claims to speak on behalf of God are backed up by divine approval in the form of a miracle. The miracle in question may be central (the Resurrection/ the Qur'n) or peripheral (the success of the religion against all human odds). It is advanced as a sign of divine approbation of the faith.
    2. Or this dialogue may try to show the plausibility of particular mysteries or revealed doctrines (sam`yyt) of faith. Since these are not subject to rational proof, the reasons can only be persuasive or reasons of convenience. Faith is a gift of God, not the result of human persuasion, much less coercion. This kind of dialogue is one that the parties can enter only by spontaneous desire. Any pressure on the other party to listen to such arguments will be taken as an affront.

The problem of parity

Just as dialogue can founder if there is not a "level playing ground" in the area of religious freedom and equal opportunity for people of all faiths, so it can get snagged by imbalance in other areas.

One of these is intellectual preparation. There can be imparity when it comes to knowledge of one's own faith or that of the other, as well as in the area of broad general education and culture. A knowledge gap can be bridged by study, but a bigger problem comes in recognizing the other's knowledge or level of competence. Credit, great or small, should be given where it is due. Also, someone with technical superiority (in language, theology, history etc.) should know how to come down and adapt to the understanding of his partner in dialogue.

Doctrinal dialogue is frequently sidetracked into the irrelevant (in my view) question of who concedes the most. Thus a Muslim will say that he believes in all the prophets, while Christians exclude Muhammad. A Christian will retort that in the area of doctrine (`aq'id) Christian beliefs include all fundamental Islamic beliefs about God and extend far beyond them. Such statements, whatever their real value, are not good openers for dialogue.


Dialogue has many different forms and levels. It is never a lecture, but presupposes an eager interest on both sides. While it cannot be forced, someone has to initiate it, to invite the other party. An atmosphere of freedom and a friendly "dialogue of life" may open the way for other kinds of dialogue.

Encounters, 1:1 (March 1995), 56-69.