Faith and Reason: A common duty to cultivate rivalry in good works: The fourth in our series on reconciling warring faiths is by a Muslim, Dr Shabbir Akhtar. He argues for the application of single standards of international justice.

WE MIGHT say of religious beliefs what we often say of members of the opposite sex: you can't live without them and you can't live with them. Without faith, we die in the purposeless life; with faith, we kill each other. To locate, and alleviate, this dilemma within the extensive pride and empowered malice of this world is a task that may begin in private depression. But it must end in the public realm of communal responsibility.

Authentic religion - and the adjective is necessary - needs resources of intelligent tolerance because religious men often show a culpable indifference and hostility to the beliefs and consciences of outsiders. And this despite the fact that the frontiers of faith could never seal so tightly that we fractured into many 'humanities'. There is only one race - the human race.

Where there is no agreement, passionate disagreement cannot build its nest. A partial unity of religious conviction is a necessary condition of religious conflict. But that which is in common need not unite. It usually prolongs and embitters the affair much as, in our personal lives, our most intense quarrels are with those with whom we proudly claim unity of purpose and familiarity of emotion.

Religious people are all in the same business; affinity breeds contempt. And much worse: Beirut, Sarajevo, Jerusalem, and Ayodhya are blood-stained landscapes.

How, then, do we introduce optimism here? It cheers us up to note that our capacity to be privately shocked by evil has not been drastically reduced by the decline of transcendent religion and the triumph of science. It is not true that ours is an age of widespread scepticism and incurable cynicism. It is true, however, that the capacity to be actively and publicly disturbed by injustice has declined in the face of secular comfort.

Our modern respect for agnosticism, rooted in the eclipse of exclusivist religious pride, is another ground for hope. Enlightened opinion among theists rejects the view that every theological controversy is due simply to someone's - usually someone else's - ignorance. Given the apparent silence of God, the deadlocks between faiths seem intractable.

Certainly, there may be a process transpiring beyond death in which the ambiguities and doctrinal stalemates of this life are resolved and broken just as the moral imbalance of our world will, according to ethical theism, be satisfactorily rectified in a future existence. But if death is the conclusive contention, that leaves problems for the living. Why does God allow large parts of mankind to remain in doubt, hesitation, or even error concerning matters of moment? It is theologically puzzling; we can sympathise with the agnostics.

We cannot, however, sympathise with wrong-doers, whatever their religious creed. As a Muslim, I have a scriptural warrant for engaging in dialogue with Jews and Christians. The Koran portrays them as scriptured societies of errant monotheists. But most modern Jews and Christians are unfaithful to their own dogmatic traditions. Many are secularised humane capitalists who accommodate rather than confront unjust secular and pseudo- religious powers and principalities. No authentic Muslim can believe that religion should be a form of private spiritual hygiene.

It is this disagreement that makes it difficult for a Muslim to engage in inter-faith dialogue, or trialogue. Much of this encounter consists of a handful of expensively educated, often maverick, figures out of touch with their community. Their polite conversation might lead one to mistake the proceedings for a tea-party. A few of the participants are sincere but misguided; most are insincere and misguided. Inter-faith dialogue, like modern optimism, often relies on unclear generalities.

As a Muslim, I wish to encourage my community to develop cordial relations with Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and secular humanists. But Muslims would insist on the application of single standards of international justice. All of us should be under the same moral microscope.

Christians should not allow their faith to become just a reactionary defence against secular science or merely a religious legitimation of Western racial pride. If they prefer piety to patriotism, then let them condemn the unjust behaviour of white settler minorities. And if Serbian aggression be treasonable to the cause of Jesus of Nazareth, why does it take a Muslim to say it?

Again, Judaism the revealed faith is now polluted by the secular heresy of Zionism. Palestine was the first territory, beyond the Arabian Peninsula, to be taken by the Muslims in 638. Here was no crude colonialism. The Muslim rulers scrupulously guarded the sacred sites of all three Abrahamic faiths for over 1,200 years - the longest single political order in the history of Palestine.

In Israeli custody, no such courtesy has been shown to Muslim sanctities. Wherever the Zionist fantasy clashes with the facts of Arab demography, there is only forced exile, dispersion, dispossession, massacre, and brutality.

Readers committed to interfaith dialogue may find these remarks relentlessly accusatory. But lengthy and deliberate indignation at the delinquencies of our brothers is justified: failure to live up to someone else's ideal is not culpable, but failure to live up to one's own invites charges.

The doctrinal deadlocks between faiths are here to stay. But better issues engage us: exploitation, poverty, and the inveterate opposition to justice. Where poverty reigns, the quest for God takes a second place to the quest for the next meal. Theology is only a luxury. The Koran puts it wisely: 'Cultivate rivalry in good works]' In that way, we can dignify at least one rivalry while ensuring the cause.

Dr Shabbir Akhtar is the author of The Muslim Poetic Imagination (Scorpion Press, pounds 6) and is now working on a biography of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own