Two in one: dual platform on religious dialogue

Two in one: dual platform on religious dialogue

It was a cultural Binali, or in the words of one participants “the awakening of conscience”. The conference that took place over two days in London (July 1 & 2) was not merely a gathering of pro-Islamic unity enthusiasts, nor was it an event to exchange superficial good wishes and sweet words while brushing aside “serious” differences amongst adherents of various schools of thought and jurisprudence within the realm of Islam.


Those who took part in the convention had deep convictions that it would be foolish to continue on the path of disunity, fragmentation and mistrust. It may have been a small gathering compared with the lavish conferences often draped in officialdom and lavishly conducted, but the spirit that surrounded the discussions and debates was far superior to many other similar congregations.


The Islamic Unity Forum (IUF) which convened the conference at the Quality Hotel, next to the grand stadium at Wembley, Middlesex, had been formed by activists from various Muslim countries over the past twelve months, with the declared aim of creating “meaningful dialogue, cooperation and practical integration”.


The idea arose after the decline in the bond between the adherents of the various schools of thought in the Muslim world, and particularly the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. The events in Iraq had been derailed to target the peaceful coexistence and mutual recognition amongst them and strong voices, with grassroots following, were thus needed to contain the religious, cultural and ethical mayhem.


The conference was attended by religious scholars from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Malaysia, Lebanon, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and some European countries. According to the organisers, many other scholars were not able to attend mainly due to difficulties in obtaining visas, or prior engagements with other activities. Over the span of two days, more than fifty scholars and intellectuals were engaged in relentless discourse on various issues relating to Muslims and the obstacles to unified attitudes and stands. Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah from Lebanon, in a special message to the conference, called for the revision of Islamic history with the aim of removing such obstacles. While Munir Shafiq, the renowned Palestinian thinker and the Chairman of the Nationalist-Islamic Congress, called for the revival of the spirit promoted by contemporary thinkers such as Jamal Al Din Al Afghani and Muhammad Abdo. Director of the Islamic Centre of England, and Special Representative of Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Shaykh Ali Mo’ezzi, outlined the efforts of the late Imam al Khumayni in urging Muslims to unite in the face of the political and cultural onslaught of Westernisation, colonisation and cultural invasion.


On the other hand, Chairman of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), Sheikh Abdul Hadi Awang, presented fresh ideas on searching for commonalities amongst Muslims and re-iterated the famous saying of Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Ridha (19th Century Islamic thinker and a pioneer of modern Islamic political thinking): “Let us cooperate in matters of agreement, and let us excuse each other in matters of contention.” Dr Mohammad Al Baltagi, a Member of the Egyptian Parliament representing the Muslim Brotherhood block, emphasised the need for wisdom, seriousness and a truthful approach in matters of extreme importance such as the relations between Muslims.

 Dr Abdul Majeed Al Manasra, a Member of the Algerian Parliament, called for a Pan-Islamic code of conduct that prohibits the exchange of accusations of blasphemy when opinions differ.


To complement the intellectual debate, the participants were invited to attend receptions by several mosques and Islamic centres. For four consecutive evenings, leaders of these bodies added to the calls for unity. At the inaugural reception at Abrar Centre on Edgware Road, Dr Kemal Helbawi and I (co-Directors of IUF) outlined the mission of the Forum and presented a press release to the media about the project. We were joined by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Awang, Munir Shafiq and Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir Al Nasseri from Iraq. At the Islamic Centre of England, London, the message was clear from Ayatullah Mo’ezzi, who repeated his earlier call for rational approaches to the concept of unity, dialogue and cooperation among Muslims. The Khatib and Imam of the East London Mosque, Maulana Abdul Qayyum, presented the pivotal role of mosques, citing the example of the East London Mosque in forging solid relations among Muslims. He was joined by Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Dr Mohammad Abdul Bari, to present a similar picture of the practical benefits of collective action by Muslims. He cited the cooperation within the MCB between Muslims (Sunni, Shi’a and others) as a practical manifestation of unity. Ayatullah Sayyid Fadhel Al Milani welcomed the guests to Al Khoei Foundation’s reception and informed them of its efforts in promoting unity and discourse among Muslims, starting with the Amman conference in 1998.


To complement the Unity Conference, the IUF organised a one-day conference on July 3 to discuss Muslim-Christian relations. During the three sessions of the day, speakers presented new dimensions to the debate. Revd Canon Peter Challen and Dr Rodney Shakespeare called for Muslim Christian joint efforts to challenge the worldwide interest-based banking system which, they said, was responsible for the ongoing global financial crisis. The Islamic concept of Riba (interest) on loans lies at the heart of financial illnesses of the world. Father Toma Dawood representing the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq, delivered a moving speech about the brotherly relations in Iraq between the two communities and called for stopping the preachers of hate in all communities. Sayyid Kamel Al Hashimi, a religious intellectual from Bahrain, called for a “culture of communication” among the adherents and followers of the faith. Revd Frank Gelli presented the debate on spirit or soul and whether it is terminally attached to the body or a separate entity, as one example of the mystical dimensions of cooperation between Muslims and Christians.


The two conferences were, in reality, more than platforms for the exchange of good ideas; they were launching pads for what the organisers had always promoted: “the creation of meaningful dialogue among the adherents of faiths.”