“Never, in the history of the human race, has there been simultaneously such a capacity for mutual understanding and such a capacity for global destruction, such a wealth of information, and yet such a dearth of ‘wisdom… .”(Dr. Roger Boase)

EVENTS LIKE “9/11”, the Madrid train bombings, and more recently, the “7/7” attacks on London, have placed Islam in even sharper relief, and have raised the stakes somewhat for the debate on pluralism in today’s increasingly globalised world. Many of the same questions are being raised, both academically and theologically, but circumstances now demand more urgent answers over how human beings can seek to live together more harmoniously.

In one of the opening chapters to this newly-released book, Islam and Global Dialogue, Diana Eck argues that pluralism is the most challenging “ism” for the world today, more so than secularism, the success of which is now being progressively questioned. And John Bowden’s chapter presents how significantly inter-religious dialogue is now being perceived, by quoting German Professor Hans Kiing’s prescription for world peace: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”
The discourse on pluralism is particularly pertinent now with regard to Islam and Muslims, and it was the widespread misunderstandings about the Muslim world, especially post9/11, that had prompted Dr Boase to compile this book, in his endeavour to promote an “ecumenical jihad”. As Robert Crane notes in his chapter, “From Clashing Civilisations to a Common Vision”, “The 9/1 1 terrorist attack on the symbols of U.S. economic and military power at the beginning of the twenty-first century was a hell-sent gift to professional Islamophobes”. Dr Boase believes that it is through discourse that these misconceptions can be eradicated: “It is only by ‘the stockpiling of trust’ through inter-religious dialogue that we can lay the foundations of a more peaceful world”.

The underlying assumption is that religions have been involved, if only indirectly, in many of the conflicts between peoples of the past and present and that therefore by greater co-operation and mutual respect between faith communities the potential for future conflicts will be greatly reduced. Tony Bayfield asserts, in his series of “indictments”, that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sibling religions acting out “the worst features of sibling rivalry that even the most dysfunctional family could possibly muster.” Pluralism, then, is the solution (but perhaps not to the whole problem).

The main obstacle, however, is howdo we define “pluralism”, and would all religious personalities necessarily agree on the same definition? Even in this collection of essays, we see many different approaches and perspectives. For example, Diana Eck believes that simply tolerating “plurality” is not good enough; that “pluralism” implies a committed effort to understand and co-exist with other faiths, races, cultures, and so on. Fred HaIliday suggests that peaceful co-existence can be achieved through dialogue based on universal principles; whereas Dr Jonathan Sacks disagrees with the universalist approach, suggesting that it would lead to a loss of identity among the individual religions and that there is a “dignity of difference” that should be respected; that the miracle of the created world is “not the Platonic form of the leaf, it’s the 250,000 different kinds of leaf there are”.

Some of the contributors promote pluralism as an acceptance of all religions as equal partners, or “fellow pilgrims” as Marcus Baybrooke puts it, whereas others like Muhammad Legenhausen qualify terms more specifically suggesting that Muslims would accept a “non-reductive” religious pluralism but are unlikely to accept other forms. While some of the other Muslim authors have argued that Islam has always had a pluralistic tradition that is more equitable. But the one definition most would probably accept, forgetting the minutiae, is the “non-definition” of Frank Gelli, where he writes that pluralism invites: “Conversation, yes. Conversion, no.”

So even a brief scan of this book would suggest that discussions on “pluralism” perhaps raise more questions than they answer. Is there more than one path to salvation? Does “our God” listen to the prayers of those from other faiths? Who is “more right”, and whose “right” to practise their religion supercedes that of others? Therefore, how do we legislate for religious pluralism? And, as Muhammad Legenhausen asks, is there a way for us to “measure relative amounts of truth”?

Like it or not, with 45% of the world’s Muslim population living as minorities in non-Muslim countries, these are questions that will become increasingly important, and that both Muslim and non-Muslim alike are going to have to deal with. Many of us now face a “plurality” of races, cultures, languages, as well as religions, in our everyday lives, and increasingly within our own families, not to mention the different perspectives found within those religions and traditions. How we seek to define our relationships with each other will have a fundamental impact on the shaping of our future societies. And so we ask more questions: Is simple co-existence enough? Will some form of mutual accommodation grow up organically if, to quote Frank Gelli, we simply accept the “brute fact” of the existence of other faiths? Or, do we need to start making more of a concerted effort to understand each other and to nurture reciprocal respect, particularly in view of recent events? And how do we go about achieving that without sacrificing the integrity of our respective traditions?

Unfortunately, Islam and Global Dialogue does not give us an A-Z of solutions that we can all agree with. As Norman Solomon points out in his essay, it is easy to identify shared values with other faiths and to make some sort of “theological space” for them – allowing them “a positive role in the divine plan” – but it is far harder to move from that towards creating “a dialogue of equals”.

However, this is perhaps where Richard Dawkins has done us all a favour by placing all religions, collectively, in the firing line. Now it seems almost inevitable that religious communities will have to work together at some level to tackle shared concerns, such as the growing trends in society and academia that are actively antireligious, or those “arising from the confrontation with modernity” (Norman Solomon). Solomon identifies this in his suggested approaches to dialogue, by noting, “When the problems are seen as shared, we can explore them together, drawing critically on the resources of all our traditions”. Perhaps, therefore, identifying the problems or shared concerns is a starting point, and provides an arena for religions to come together in a way that need not be defined by conflict.

Although this collection of essays on religious pluralism may not provide all the answers, it does consider all of the questions. It helps to define, through a “star-studded cast”, a framework for the debate, and provides various models and ideas over how solutions can be achieved. In fact, the simple act of bringing together scholars and commentators from such different perspectives and traditions was a brave task and an accomplishment in itself.

While, interestingly, the individual authors do not always themselves display the requisite qualities of pluralism – or perhaps they simply differ on its definition – they nevertheless succeed as a group in taking us through a pluralistic consideration of various pertinent issues, including Samuel Huntington’s much-quoted “clash of civilisations”; the apparent rise of religious fundamentalisms; terrorism and 9/ 1 1 come up again and again, largely as the focal point for the discussions; identity and divisions within faith communities, with an obvious focus on the Muslim world; and widely misunderstood terms such as “jihad” and “hiraba “are also clarified.

So, the writers of Islam and Global Dialogue reflect upon the causes, manifestations and consequences of conflicts involving religious personalities or groups, they make an attempt to investigate the potential obstacles to pluralism and its validity, but also consider how individual religions can approach inter-religious dialogue in order to avoid such conflicts in the future, and to stop Huntington’s theory from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The limitations of the book are perhaps in the fact that, for the most part, only the three main monotheistic traditions were included, and it would be interesting to see whether any alternative problems – or indeed solutions – may have arisen by widening the scope of the discussions to, for example, those of a polytheistic tradition. That no clear prescriptions are given, too, is disappointing, but probably also inevitable. It is also interesting to see the different approaches and lack of clarity of position shown by authors coming from the same religious background, for example in considering certain Quranic injunctions that may appear to be antipluralistic in nature (e.g. “Anyone who seeks a faith other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him” Qur’an 3:85).

But the Qur’an also says, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” (2:115). And, given that, as HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal wrote in his preface, “our greatest certainty now is that we face unpredictable times”, it seems that we increasingly need to start recognising the face of God within each other, at least at some level. Even if we do not accept that it is religions that cause conflicts, they remain at least a potential cause, particularly in some of their modern more radical manifestations. Regardless of whether we believe our own paths to be “more right” or “more true”, that need not necessarily inhibit progress at a practical level of achieving common goals.

However, even if we can overcome this failure to view each other on an equal footing, the questions remain over how and at what level interreligious dialogue can have an effect. But, perhaps what Islam and Global Dialogue illustrates best to us is that there is now a willingness among religious personalities to come together and to try the route of dialogue, rather than the more tried and tested route of conflict, and to see where it takes us.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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