Renowned Christian theologian, Hans Kung, ends his book, “Global Responsibility,” with these ominous words:
“No human life together without a world ethic for the nations; no peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions."
In the 21st century, the era of globalization, with almost universal access to information and the most highly educated world population in history, conflicts continue unabated in many parts of the world, some political, others ethnic or sectarian in nature. Whether it is Rohingya Muslims being expelled by Buddhists in Myanmar or Christians being targeted by Egyptian Muslims, or even Shia-Sunni intolerance in the Middle East and beyond, religious chauvinism and exceptionalism are on display, illustrating some of the basest instincts of human nature.
Encountering the Other
In the United States, there is not only a political divide but also a chasm between views on society and culture between those with faith and without, and between those of differing faiths, exacerbated in the past few decades by acts of violence and rhetoric.
The good news is that there are opportunities to counter these trends and to collaborate constructively with other faith organizations in promoting a more tolerant, inclusive, and pluralist society. Critics of interfaith dialogue point to the superficiality of many encounters where common ground is a focus, without engaging seriously about differing world views or theological sensitivities, which result in platitudes that make participants and audiences emotionally satisfied but perhaps intellectually unchallenged, and without practical constructive impact.
Despite these criticisms, which are valid for many such encounters, there are a number of reasons why engaging with adherents of other faiths and their organizations can be useful and serve a practical purpose. No religion exists in a vacuum, and conversing with members of other faith traditions allows one to understand common values and ethical scriptural requirements, one’s own faith in the context of others, the relationships between faiths in history, other cultures, to explain one’s own faith and identity, to clarify misconceptions, and to explore opportunities to collaborate for social change.
The US Jamat has long had relationships with other faith communities to bridge these divides and to affirm our values, traditions, and identity, as American Shia Ismaili Muslims.
NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change is a community-building organization that creates, connects and empowers Jewish and Muslim change-makers in America. Through its professional fellowship, high school leadership council, and public programming, it transforms Muslim-Jewish relations and advances a shared agenda for change. Three members of the Los Angeles Jamat are currently members of its Board, another is on the Advisory Board and about 15 Ismaili students have participated in its programs, allowing other students to discuss their faiths and to build friendships.
In 2017, the Ismaili Council for the Western United States was presented with NewGround’s Trailblazer Award, for its continued support of the community through exemplary voluntary service. The luncheon, attended by 300 guests, featured the Ismaili Choir, whose choral selections included Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Hindi, and English.
“Pluralism does not mean the elimination of difference, but the embrace of difference,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam at the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, and some cities have taken this idea to heart. Los Angeles pioneered the concept of a Day of Religious Pluralism, and the fourth such event was held in 2019, sponsored by the Ismaili Council, in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. It was organized by the Human Relations Commission and the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement.
Atlanta also adopted this model, with a similar event held in 2019 for the first time at City Hall. The Ismaili Council for the Southeastern United States sponsored this event, and former President Murad Abdullah welcomed guests on behalf of the Host Committee, asking the audience to “work in unison towards, not just religious pluralism, but all forms of equity.”
Thanksgiving Meeting of Faiths
All faith communities believe in giving thanks for the blessings received. Almost three decades ago, the Chicago Jamat joined the Edgewater Community Religious Association (ECRA), an alliance of about 20 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations that meet at each other’s places of worship for an annual Thanksgiving event. In 2012 and in 2018, Glenview’s Ismaili Jamatkhana reverberated with songs and scriptures of many faiths, and the Jamat, volunteers, and Scouts have continued to participate in these events.
The previous week, Ismailis joined ECRA’s service with the Emmanuel Congregation - Reform Jewish Synagogue, in response to the mass shooting in Pittsburgh, where 11 members of a Jewish Congregation were killed. “I will be eternally grateful for the richness of that experience, that was made possible by the diversity of the group involved, and yet the similarity of our compassion,” said Rabbi Craig Marantz.
A practical initiative related to this event was the involvement of 100 Jamati members packing hygiene kits, and donations of winter coats and food items as a Thanksgiving gift to Care for Real (formed by ECRA), a charity that serves the needy.
The Houston Jamat also participated in the Thanksgiving Interfaith Service organized by the Fort Bend Interfaith Council at the end of 2019. In addition to the Ismaili Choir’s rendition, the Southwest Council’s Honorary Secretary Irfan Ali, quoted from Mawlana Hazar Imam’s LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, that “the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us – not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another – rather than something to fear.”
Working with Other Faith Groups
One of the ways to counter misconceptions is to invite the local community to visit a Jamatkhana, an initiative adopted at our major centers. For example, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in Plano hosted an interfaith event, where 150 people of other faiths were invited to learn more about the Ismaili Muslim community. Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere was present, and remarked, “Often when you walk into spiritual centers, there’s a sense of rigidness and structure, but here it just feels free-flowing. There’s a sense of warmth and acceptance I feel when I come here, a sense of belonging immediately.”
Engaging youth at an early age to be more open to diversity can leave lasting impressions. In Houston, the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States engaged youth volunteers from other faiths at the Fort Bend Interfaith Council’s second annual Youth Day of Service, in January 2020 at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in Sugar Land. Youth from a variety of faiths gathered for community service activities. Following these, they participated in group interfaith discussions.
Commenting on the significance of the event, Alim Adatia, a member of the Southwest Council said: “In addition to physical service, seeing youth take advantage of the opportunity to engage with youth from other congregations and have a discussion around the role of service, highlights the importance of intellectual curiosity that more permanently ensures the improvement of our community through our collective efforts.”
All these initiatives illustrate the Ismaili Council’s desire, not only to connect in terms of mutual intellectual understanding of other faith traditions, but to connect at a personal level, to appreciate each other’s cultures, and to collaborate on meaningful programs that help to improve the quality of life of vulnerable populations - a cardinal ethic of all faiths. These encounters are valuable opportunities that go beyond dialogue about faith, to acting for faith.