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Head, Heart, and Hands: Breaking the Cycle of Religious Fear

The need to engage in interfaith dialogue has never been greater. By learning the foundations of each other's faiths, we can learn to respect and connect with one another so we may work together to build a better world.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

St. Catherine's Monastery, photo by In Transit

A monastery overlooks a mosque below Mount Sinai.

Photo by In Transit

No matter how nuanced our discussions about interfaith become, one basic issue overshadows all the rest: the need to engage in interfaith dialogue has never been greater. As the three of us say in our book, “It’s a matter of our survival.” Look at the conflicts around the world. Religion—or rather, uninformed prejudice about religions other than one’s own—is used, whether consciously or unconsciously, to foment and justify hatred and violence. Truly, we must expand our religious literacy by open-minded and open-hearted dialogue if we are to break the cycle of inter-religious fear and violence.

Appreciative understanding

Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly said that if we want peace in a multi-religious society, each of us must develop an appreciative understanding of the others’ religions. Interfaith understanding isn’t just a nice idea; it is, in Gandhi’s words, “a sacred duty.” And we have to ask ourselves honestly, “What is the source of my information?” It’s human nature to credit only sources that feed our own preconceived opinions, so we must combat that tendency by making conscious efforts to consult other sources. The best way to learn about other religions is to talk with people who actually practice them. Resist the temptation to avoid this work by thinking, “Ah, but all this does not apply to me because I am open minded and non-prejudiced.” Gandhi would humbly ask, “But what are you open-mined and non-prejudiced about?”

In time, dialogue of the heart leads to dialogue of the hands: interfaith participation in programs of social justice and care for the Earth, issues that are dear to all hearts regardless of religious affiliation.

Illiteracy is unfortunate but religious illiteracy is dangerous. When we are religiously illiterate, we are susceptible to being manipulated. Unscrupulous politicians and religious firebrands with an agenda castigate the other’s religion and pander to our base ego nature. Our fear passions are whipped up and our thinking becomes befuddled. Our ignorance turns into arrogance. An entire religion is judged by the behavior or misbehavior of some practitioners. We say and do terrible things.

Gandhi has timeless advice about dealing with religious extremism. If a religious extremist commits a wrong, by all means protect yourself and take right action, but please, Gandhi begged us, do not criticize that person’s religion. Instead, point out insights and verses of wisdom and beauty from the person’s own religion and help him or her to become a better Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or Jew. That kind of thinking and action, Gandhi explained, is the way of peace. It reminds us that there is inherent beauty and wisdom in every religion, and we need to cultivate this awareness in our society, especially amongst our children, schools, government officials, politicians, and religious leaders.

Scholarly vertigo

Recently I heard about a forum in which a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor debated vigorously about whose scripture was superior, the Quran or the Bible. Such debate only serves to inflate both Muslim and Christian egos and is decidedly not what interfaith dialogue is all about. We are not in a game of scoring points over each other. This kind of dialogue creates what Sufi teachers call a “scholarly vertigo” and an “exhausted famousness.” Beware of becoming addicted to unnecessary and complex discussions in religion. Rumi likens such addiction to that of a bird that ties a snare around its legs and then unties it, repeating the process over and over in ever more complex snares to show off its strange skill. Addicted to the game it has created, the bird has forgotten that the point of untying the string is to escape!

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In all the presentations the three of us have done since 9/11, the questions directed to me always concern Jihad, “holy war,” and a perceived lack of tolerance in the Quran. These questions are rooted in common misunderstandings perpetuated by misuse and misrepresentation in the media. To set the record straight, Jihad literally means “effort” and refers primarily to the spiritual effort to evolve into the fullness of one’s being, to improve relationships with family and neighbors, and to work for justice. The more militant concept of Jihad that so threatens the Western mind refers only to self-defense when under attack. The idea of Jihad as “holy war” simply does not exist in the Quran, even though this is the prevailing notion not only in the media but also, unfortunately, among some Islamic militants.

Regarding the fear that the Quran encourages intolerance, the truth is that many Quranic verses celebrate diversity. When, in the course of our presentations, Rabbi Ted and Pastor Don quote these “diversity” verses, audience members—including Muslims—are astonished that a rabbi and a pastor care enough about interfaith work to learn and quote from a sacred scripture outside their own traditions. This simple example moves them to reach out to their neighbors and colleagues of different faiths and expand their own religious literacy. There’s no need to play string games about theological minutiae. We need only to listen to the knowledge and experience of another’s religion to escape the snare of misinformation and soften our prejudices.

Dialogue of heart and hands

So far we have been talking about dialogue of the head, but there is also dialogue of the heart—what has come to be called the “three cups of tea” approach (from the title of that wonderful book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin): listen, respect, and connect. This approach, which we three amigos have seen evolve over our years of friendship—not only among the three of us, but also among members of our congregations—has resulted in such trust that we are able to name and discuss things that are awkward and difficult in our own texts. Our intention is not to criticize but to name the truth and begin the process of healing the shadow side of our traditions so that we might become more authentic with ourselves and with others. Verses that do not support the universal messages of our holy books need to be interpreted by a higher understanding within us. Sages tell us that we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. In our presentations on this issue, the audience response has been extraordinarily supportive. Truth telling and the sincere desire to heal self and others uplift religious literacy to a higher level. This kind of literacy is possible when there is a dialogue of the heart.

Then there is dialogue of the hands. No matter what our differences, we all can collaborate on projects of mutual interest. When there is a human connection and possibility of friendship, scriptural differences no longer loom as a threat even among conservative and orthodox members of another faith. In time, dialogue of the heart leads to dialogue of the hands: interfaith participation in programs of social justice and care for the Earth, issues that are dear to all hearts regardless of religious affiliation.

The Quran tells us that God “has spread out the earth as a carpet for you so that you may walk therein on spacious paths” (71:18-19). When we enter into an interfaith dialogue with the other, we are truly walking on spacious paths.


Jamal RahmanSheikh Jamal Rahman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamal is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam and Out of Darkness into Light - Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources.

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